Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t need to transcend the romantic comedy genre to be a success. It is a romantic comedy in a Hollywood era when rom-coms are basically unicorns, with audiences flocking to Hallmark and Netflix for the rom-com fix they can’t get in theaters. Far more unforgiveable than the dearth of rom-coms is the dearth of Hollywood films featuring an Asian cast. In fact, the film is the first major Hollywood film since 1993’s Joy Luck Club to feature a majority Asian cast set in modern times.
Because of these factors, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t need to be as good as it is. Frankly, this film simply existing, both as a rom-com and a domestic film featuring an exclusively Asian cast, would probably be enough to bring audiences to the cinemas in droves. However, Crazy Rich Asians goes for top marks, with its creators aware of how much cultural weight lies on the execution of this film. And it pays off—Crazy Rich Asians is one of those movies that both embraces and transcends its genre to work on multiple levels.
Based on the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians follows Chinese American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who agrees to travel with boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) back to his Singaporean home to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet Nick’s family. Once in the Southeast Asian island city-state, Rachel slowly realizes that her boyfriend is the equivalent of Singaporean royalty, with the kind of resources and access to power small nation-states would covet.
The class romance plot is a familiar formula, a fantasy recently tapped into in media coverage of Meghan Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry, but one that has been a mainstay of the modern romantic comedy formula since Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. Wu’s Rachel is our Elizabeth Bennett. Clever and funny, assured yet vulnerable, Wu is fantastic as the romantic comedy everywoman. For his part, Golding is sexy, charming, and sweet in a character that could easily come off as out-of-touch and insensitive, especially given that Nick lets Rachel walk into meeting his family so unprepared.
It helps that the chemistry between Wu and Golding is palpable—their characters look at one another like the other hung the moon. By setting this romance not at the beginning of the relationship, but more than a year into it, the central question isn’t will-they-or-won’t-they, but rather is love enough to overcome vastly different cultural backgrounds? The two experienced very different childhoods, not only growing up in different countries, but growing up in extremely different class contexts. While Nick grew up “crazy rich,” Rachel grew up the daughter of a working class immigrant single mom (Tan Kheng Hua’s Kerry Chu).
Crazy Rich Asians embraces rom-com tropes and patterns, but cleverly places the emotional stakes not solely on the romance but also on the relationship between Rachel and would-be mother-in-law Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a loving, yet controlling mother who has yet to work through her own issues over never being fully accepted into the Young family. In this way, Rachel’s journey isn’t about falling in or commiting to love, something we’ve seen young female protagonists go through again and again, but rather better understanding and owning her own identities as a Chinese American and the daughter of an immigrant. This movie is about the difficulties of blending families and being family—a theme anyone can relate to, no matter your cultural or class background.
The cast is charismatic and filled with familiar faces—from Ocean’s 8‘s Awkwafina playing Rachel’s eccentric college bestie Peik Lin to Community‘s Ken Jeong, who plays Peik Lin’s even more eccentric father. Gemma Chan, who you may recognize from AMC’s Humans, is a standout as Nick’s more grounded cousin Astrid, who is struggling with problems in her own marriage amidst the wedding celebrations. The film is surprisingly ensemble-focused for a rom-com, giving this world and community a lived-in quality.
Formally, there’s a lot to like here. Director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) obviously made the film with the straight female viewer as a priority, lingering on the toned bodies of its fit male stars rather than objectifying its women. An early social media montage is a formal standout, capturing the pace, efficiency, and fun of the modern communication age, and immediately makes this world feel both global and potentially claustrophobic.
It’s a cliché descriptor, but Singapore truly is its own character here. What Outlander does for the pastoral romanticism of Scotland, Crazy Rich Asians does for the sleek glamour of Singapore. The film gives us many sweeping shots of the landscape and architecture, setting this rom-com apart from the many, many ones set in New York City. Depending on what your tolerance for glorifying materialism and consumerism, the casual wealth of Crazy Rich Asians may rub you the wrong way. It says a lot that this film manages to effectively romanticize and make sympathetic protagonists of the uber wealthy in a time when wealth inequality continues to grow. (At one point, Astrid casually drops $1.2 million on a pair of earrings in a character introduction that positions her as the down-to-earth cousin.)
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The soundtrack is filled with Chinese-language covers of English-language classics, bridging the gap for viewers who might be less familiar with the cultural in-jokes of the film. As an American of European descent, I am sure there were cultural references I totally missed, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film. Besides, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? I’d love a Pop-Up Video version of this movie, but it’s more than enough to know that, for those demographics who so rarely get to see their rich culture represented in more complete ways on screen, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t just a fun, summer movie; it’s an acknowledgment that these stories and identities matter to mainstream American culture.
Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t need to be as good as it is. In its explorations of Chinese diaspora, Asian American cultures, and identity, as well as a thematic prioritization of family in addition to romance, this film isn’t just long overdue and necessary. It’s a multi-faceted delight!