The theater on opening night for Crazy Rich Asians—John Chu’s glittering, tacky, and ultimately satisfying homage to romantic love and money—was full of Asian people, all of whom cheered, whooped, hollered, and audibly awwww-ed for the entire two hours. It was an experience that felt interactive—the first romcom that could’ve been shown in 4DX, an occasionally stressful immersive theatre experience that plops viewers into the thick of it. Set in a Singapore absent any economic disparity and hardship, the movie is pure escapist fare, a perfect summer film in spite of the enormous expectations placed on its success.
The great pressure on Crazy Rich Asians to prove itself stems primarily from the oft-cited fact that it’s the first mainstream American film featuring an all-East Asian cast since 1995’s The Joy Luck Club. That’s the kind of pressure that can ultimately lead to a smidgen of disappointment, despite any attendant praise, but the film’s energy surpasses expectations. The vast displays of wealth—over the top and opulent, a never-ending feast for the eyes—are merely window dressing for the fantasy of true love at the movie’s core. Whether or not it was Chu’s intention, the film pays tribute to a more old-fashioned sort of cinema: a frothy comedy about society folks, a skewed House of Mirth for 2018, set in a glittering city that, in 2018, embodies the same promise Edith Wharton’s fin de siecle New York once did. Money is everywhere on screen, apparent in every shot. So, too, is Chu’s pedigree. Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy giddy off its own supply—the answer to the question of what a romantic comedy would look like if it were shot like an action film.
The plot, which manages to stay relatively true to the source material (Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book), trots along at a breakneck speed, though the constraints of having to focus on the romance mean that its backstories get compressed. Still, the most remarkable part is that the pacing manages to replicate the breathless experience of reading the book itself—it is the perfect example of a beach read, able to be inhaled in one weekend.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is dating Nick Young (Henry Golding), a man whose family’s wealth is so extra it’s almost disgusting. By his own admission, he is “comfortable,” a phrase he says with a rueful grin as he and Rachel sit in first class, on their way to his best friend’s wedding. What Nick is hiding is the fact that he’s obscenely wealthy, a scion of Singaporean society with a thorny, complicated family dedicated to self-preservation above all. Keeping the wealth in the family means marrying Nick off to anyone but Rachel, a small-potatoes ABC (American-Born Chinese) with no pedigree to speak of. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, quietly terrifying and electric), is aghast, though she hides it well. Her son will have nothing to do with Rachel if she has anything to do with it… But because this is a romcom after all, things work out in the end.
Faithful readers of the book will notice slight changes that set the story up for a tidy happy ending while also leaving it open for a potential sequel. The proposal sequence in the movie is not the same as the one in the book, but it is an instant classic. Watching Golding weave his tall body past passengers in coach as he tells Rachel how he wanted to propose while actually proposing is on par with Hugh Grant telling Julia Roberts that he’s just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to love him. The changes are necessary for the narrative, but render the subplots flat.
An enormous amount of energy pulses through every frame; a thrilling montage of an impeccably dressed woman sending one text message turns into an animated, stress-inducing illustration of how fast news travels. The camera lingers on the details in the interiors, wandering over the gilt edges and marble walls. It also gives equal attention to food. All the food in this movie is shot with love, and made to look extravagant whether it’s night market fare or the bonkers party feast Eleanor supervises in the kitchen of her compound. The pace is appropriate for the source material, and the cast keeps up.
As a leading man, Henry Golding is perfection: kind, handsome, smooth, speaking in a British accent. Golding is not in the mold of traditional romcom men like Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal, Hugh Grant—he is an updated version of something out of a pleasantly sinister fairy tale—a prince whose body and mind are sound, who is caring, loving and kind, and who is filthy, stinking rich. He does things that made me write “Nick is an idiot, sorry!” at least three times in my notes—but he does it with charm. During a scene when Golding’s bare torso is bathed in a particularly flattering light, a man sitting next to me audibly purred. Rachel’s friend Peik Lin is played to great comedic effect by Awkwafina, fresh off a breakout role in Ocean’s 8.
The romantic comedy is a genre not generally known for scathing geopolitical commentary. And yet, what feels remarkable and shouldn’t is that every actor in this movie is of Asian descent; this fact—the issue of representation—has been the focus of the conversation around the film. Of course it’s notable and distressing that the film is such an anomaly, but it’s unfair to ask that this movie be everything for everyone, which only sets everyone up for disappointment.
What’s comforting is that Crazy Rich Asians might pave the way for other stories about Asian people in America that aren’t hardscrabble immigration weepies or slick odes to the one percent. One has to look no further than Netflix’s adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA novel To All The Boys I Loved, a well-received romantic comedy that just happens to feature a Korean-American girl as its lead. This is hardly a full-blown revolution and more the start of a zeitgeist perhaps, but at least it’s something, and it’s very fun to watch.