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Crazy Rich Asians

First of all, I’m an adult white male — born and raised in America — who likes to write about creative movies that push emotional or intellectual boundaries in some way. Which means that I could scarcely be further from the target demographic of a silly little romcom with a majority-Asian cast. Furthermore, it was immediately obvious at first glance that this was yet another movie made for the courting of Asian countries, so it would be guaranteed huge international sales regardless of quality.

But none of that is why I didn’t want to give this movie a shot. What really pissed me off about the movie is right there in the title: “Crazy RICH Asians” (emphasis mine). Here we have a movie about a family of zillionaires, living in the apex of luxury, with all their cars and penthouse apartments on full display for us to see. And I’m expected to sympathize with these people because the male lead is looking for love, the matriarch is kind of a bitch, and they are otherwise freed of any kind of problem that 98 percent of the population could possibly relate to.

Eat a dick. Eat ALL the dicks. With onions.

If this premise had been applied to a movie about white people, I would have avoided it like the goddamn plague. Hell, I don’t know if the movie ever could have possibly been made with white people. But it wasn’t. In fact, pretty much everyone on both sides of the camera was some variety of Asian. And then the movie got glowing critical praise, including at least one heartfelt piece from Asian writers about how it felt to see themselves and their culture so flawlessly depicted onscreen.

Of course I believe that representation matters. And a huge reason of why it matters is because it humanizes people of a certain demographic, normalizing them to those outside the demographic. So if this movie was going to be held up as an example of Chinese culture done right, I may as well put my money where my mouth is and give it a shot.

And once again, my preconceptions played right into the filmmakers’ hands.

To be clear, the movie stumbles out of the gate in some pretty big ways. The movie opens with a prologue, in which Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) and her family are mistreated by a crew of comically bigoted white fools before Young turns around and buys their entire workplace. It’s totally unnecessary, it’s absurdly simplistic, and it ruins so many reveals that happen later on. While I can understand omitting the meet-cute between our two main romantic leads, it would have made a far more useful and entertaining prologue than what we got here.

Moving on, our protagonist is Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu. She’s an economics professor at New York University, an educated and hard-working woman in a respected profession, but still charming and grounded enough to be relatable. All well and good. Henry Golding plays Nick Young, the prodigal son of a real estate family so obscenely wealthy that they’re practically royalty in Singapore. We are then treated to a montage in which Rachel and Nick are seen together, Nick is recognized, and everyone online from New York to Singapore knows who Nick Young’s new girlfriend is. In something like two minutes.

First of all, Rachel and Nick have been dating for quite some time now and she doesn’t know the first thing about his family. We’ll come back to that. Secondly, no matter how rich and famous Nick Young is, I still find it just a touch implausible that word could spread that far that quickly. But assuming that it really was that fast and easy, why the hell hasn’t it happened before in all the time they’ve been dating?

So, the first ten minutes were rocky, until we meet Rachel’s mother (played by Tan Kheng Hua). With her comes the gentle reminder that even though Rachel looks Chinese and she speaks fluent Chinese (at least one of the languages, anyway), she was born in America and raised with American values. In every way that matters, Rachel is American who is going to China for the first time. So she’s basically a stranger in her own ancestral home.

Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Yes, we do see a lot of glitter and glamour when we get to Singapore, and it should come as no surprise that practically the whole movie is shot like a tourism ad. But the filmmakers are very clear in taking the time to shoot a more “ground-level” view of Singapore, among the food carts and mahjong tables. Is any of this an authentic portrayal of the city and it’s culture? I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that I hope to someday see a filmmaker who shoots my own hometown the way Jon Chu shoots Singapore.

The whole movie is loaded with conflict and comedy powered by all the culture clashes going on. While Rachel is the Chinese newcomer born into American values, and Nick is the Chinese native who adopted American values as his own, they’re both trying to carve out a place where they’re equally at home in both countries. They want to embrace money and traditions, without letting either one define who they are and what they need to be happy. It works surprisingly well.

Then we have the “class disparity” aspect, which livens up the movie in a few surprising ways. For starters, the movie has a unique kind of “modern fairy tale” vibe with glittery trappings that could only be made plausible by families with more money than restraint. Thus the obscene shows of wealth are made into something accessible rather than distancing. Very clever.

More importantly, the fact that our male lead is so wealthy and famous and handsome opens our female lead to the unwelcome attention of Jealous Bitches coming at her from every angle. Rachel isn’t just dealing with the Young family, she has to cope with emotional sabotage of every kind — slut-shaming, passive-aggressive insults, backstabbing, harassment, etc. — from total strangers. That’s something Rachel was never remotely prepared for, and she deals with all of this in an admirable way that makes the character greatly endearing.

The trailers have made a huge deal out of Michelle Yeoh’s character and her conflict with Rachel because she doesn’t approve and Rachel’s not good enough for Nick, and so on. But to my pleasant surprise, the hostile interplay between these two characters is much more subtle, nuanced, and frankly authentic than the trailers indicated. It doesn’t blow up into open warfare until relatively late in the game, and it’s bolstered by a plot twist that was actually kind of ingenious. And then of course we have Rachel’s solution to Nick’s dilemma of true love versus his family, an intelligent and creative solution that comes with one of the sickest, deepest burns I’ve ever seen in any movie.

That’s another great point about this movie, by the way — there are a lot of memorable lines in here and the comic timing is on point from start to finish.

Something else about that climactic Rachel/Eleanor showdown is that it’s a perfect example of how the filmmakers integrate Chinese references and in-jokes in a way that add authentic layers to the movie without completely losing anyone who doesn’t know the culture. It’s very subtle and brilliantly done. (This spoilery article has more details.) We also get a soundtrack loaded with Chinese-language covers of American pop song favorites. Kind of like a cultural appropriation in reverse. I dig it.

It’s also important to note that there is no shortage of characters designed as piss-takes against the uber-wealthy. A great example is the constantly horny Alistair (Remy Hii), a hack movie producer who’s dating a ditzy soap opera “actress” (played by Fiona Xie). On the other end of the spectrum is Eddie (Ronny Chieng), a professional asshole who measures absolutely everything¬†by material gain. Put them both together and you get Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang), a boorish super-douchebag who spends money like it’s going to rot.

But among Nick’s friends and cousins, my personal favorite is Astrid (Gemma Chan), a philanthropist who married a common (albeit insanely good-looking) soldier (Michael, played by Pierre Png). Not only are these two of the rare supporting characters who are genuinely sympathetic, with legitimate problems and more than two dimensions, but this was a fascinating look into what Nick and Rachel’s relationship might look like if they really did get married and have kids. Potentially more intriguing, it’s an examination of how and why our central romance could potentially fall apart.

I kept waiting for the movie to tie Astrid’s marital difficulties into Rachel’s arc in some way… and it never happened. Sure, Astrid gets a nicely satisfying resolution to her arc, and it’s sweet that Rachel is able to lend emotional support through someone else’s problems instead of focusing completely on her own, but this whole subplot doesn’t really have anything to do with the main plot and I find that disappointing. In fact, any or all of Nick’s cousins could have been cut from the movie entirely without affecting the plot. That’s a huge waste of potential, considering all the insights that these characters might have offered and all the directions they could have taken the plot, but the movie isn’t content to develop them beyond cardboard cutouts when they could have been so much more.

Yes, I know that the movie was based on a trilogy of books, and the mid-credits stinger was a clear signal to fans of the source material that the filmmakers are planning to expand this movie into a franchise. So it’s entirely possible that the filmmakers were banking on future movies to develop these characters further. Right now, that impresses me about as much as Paul Feig’s take on Zuul, Dean Israelite’s new Green Ranger, and all of the “Dark Universe” movies. I reserve the right to amend my judgment if this movie ever actually does get sequels that don’t suck, but in the non-hypothetical present we’re currently living in, these characters were wasted.

Even so, none of these characters were so threadbare and cardboard as Rachel’s sassy best friend (Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s old college roommate, played by Awkwafina), or the flamboyantly gay makeover coach (Oliver, one of Nick’s more distant cousins, played by Nico Santos). I’m seriously disappointed that both of these outdated cliches are still around, but at least they get a ton of laughs off the strength of the comedic writing and performances. Unlike Ken Jeong, who turns in a performance far below his usual standard. I seriously have no idea what the hell he was doing here.

Oh, and we also have the pervy overweight nerd who’s shy and withdrawn and takes pictures of women without their knowledge or consent, and everything he does is creepy as fuck but everyone laughs it off as a joke… no. No no no no no. All of the fuck no. Fuck this character and anyone who thought he was a good idea.

But then of course we have Nick Young. The male lead who deliberately made sure his longtime girlfriend didn’t know the first thing about his family until she was actually there among the wolves. As if meeting your boyfriend’s mother for the first time wasn’t stressful enough. There was absolutely no reason for keeping something this huge from the woman he intends to marry, and throwing her into all of this with no warning or preparation was a REALLY shitty thing to do. And he’s never seriously taken to task for it, aside from a limp hand-wave.

In point of fact, the whole movie seems averse to any kind of consequence. The central conflict revolves around the question of whether Nick and Rachel will end up together, but it’s not entirely clear what will happen to either of them or their respective families one way or the other. The movie just kind of hints at consequences that never materialize and are never resolved. Of course, Nick’s family is rich and powerful enough that they can basically do whatever, but do we really want to pull on that particular thread?

If the characters are free to disregard the rules or make them up on the fly, then there’s nothing at stake, the central conflict is moot, and the entire plot falls apart. So clearly, this is a plot that was never meant to withstand any kind of close scrutiny. Yet the movie was clearly intelligent enough to confront stereotypes about race and class… while also directly playing into outdated stereotypes about nerds and gay people.

Crazy Rich Asians¬†tries to be this intelligent and insightful movie about class and culture while also working as a brainless piece of romcom fluff, and it almost — ALMOST — succeeds at having it both ways. The humor is enough to distract from the dated cliches, the leads are strong enough to redeem the lackluster supporting characters, and the infectious sense of fun is strong enough to paper over those moments when the plot thins. Of course, it also helps that the script is loaded with enough clever dialogue and creativity to freshen up the more predictable plot points.. And even if it’s frustrating to see so many two-dimensional supporting characters, it’s primarily frustrating because they showed the potential to be so much more. (Except for that nerd character, seriously, what the high holy hell were the filmmakers thinking?!)

Ultimately, this is a movie overflowing with heart, and it has just enough brains to get by. The central conceit of an all-Asian cast is utilized as far more than a mere gimmick, and that alone is worthy of respect. This is absolutely a movie worth checking out — a perfect fit for the post-summer pre-Oscar season — but you won’t be missing out on much if you wait for home video.

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