Hundreds of articles! Overwhelming buzz! 93% on Rotten Tomatoes!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few months, you’ve no doubt heard the roar of the Crazy Rich Asians hype machine chugging away. Like Get Out and Black Panther before it, it’s been dubbed the Movie of the Moment, receiving endless praise for revitalizing its genre and for its all-Asian cast. But pull back the Eastern twist and you’re left with a generic, if competent, rom-com.
The movie’s story is older than film itself: down-to-earth girl must win the approval of boyfriend’s (all but) royal family. The heroine in question is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), successful economics professor and first generation American. Her first scene shows her beating one of her students at poker in front of her class, because any actual discussion of economics would be beyond this movie’s intellectual ambitions. When Nick Young (Henry Goulding), Rachel’s native-Singaporean boyfriend, brings her home for his best friend’s wedding, she’s shocked to realize that his family is among Singapore’s richest, and finds herself struggling to impress his traditional mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).
What follows is not so much a story as a series of dutifully checked genre boxes, along with one entirely unnecessary subplot focusing on the crumbling marriage of two side characters. The notes the screenplay hits are well-played ones indeed: the disapproving mother-in-law, the makeover montage, the impossibly lavish wedding. There’s even a rush-to-the-airport climax, gleefully employed with no self-awareness whatsoever, let alone a twist on the formula. The characters don’t fare much better, filling in all the blanks of the romantic comedy cast list: the wacky best friend (Awkwafina, alternately funny and insufferable), the supportive gay ally (Nico Santos, charming in a stock role), the one-dimensionally dreamy love interest, etc. Only the bit parts, like Jimmy O. Yang’s hilarious turn as classless man-child Bernard, manage to partially escape cliché.
Though Crazy Rich Asians may welch on the crazy, it absolutely delivers on the rich. From sweeping shots of Singapore’s skyline to images of obscenely expensive clothes and furniture, this movie is all about the Benjamins (or Ishaks, in this case). This shallow, borderline-crass material worship would no doubt be critically savaged had it focused on crazy rich Europeans, but I digress. The problem with Crazy Rich Asians’s money porn isn’t that it’s hollow and superficial; it’s that the movie lacks the conviction to commit to it. After an hour and a half of slavering over jewelry, dresses, and décor, Crazy Rich Asians’s final act has the gall to tell us that it’s the love of others, not empty wealth, that’s truly important. Had the movie devoted more than five minutes to life outside the one percent, perhaps the argument would carry more weight.
But for all its faults, Crazy Rich Asians is a perfectly watchable movie, even if it isn’t the rom-com game-changer we were promised. The actors are all likable enough, the Singapore locations look great, and the soundtrack puts a nice Chinese-language spin on some pop standards. Special mention goes to Constance Wu, whose spunky lead performance provides a much-needed anchor to all the fluff, and Michelle Yeoh, ably portraying the closest thing this movie has to a complex character. Ultimately, Crazy Rich Asians is a cute little time-waster undeserving of the massive expectations and supposed cultural significance that have been thrust upon it. In other words: a reasonably good time, but nothing crazy.