Synopsis: This contemporary romantic comedy follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family. (Adapted from IMDb)
Review: About a month after everyone else, I finally saw Crazy Rich Asians. I am glad I read the book first since the movie leaves out a lot of important information. However, I enjoyed seeing a romantic comedy where both lead characters have believable jobs, no explicit sex scenes, and the over-the-top fun that every romantic comedy requires.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, Crazy Rich Asians tells the tale of Rachel Chu, a Chinese American economics professor (played by Constance Wu), who travels to Singapore to attend a wedding with her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). They have dated for a year and this is the first time Rachel will meet Nick’s family. He did nor prepare her. She has no idea that the Young family is an extremely wealthy and prestigious “old money” family. Nick is must adapt to Chinese culture, conniving ex-girlfriends, and, even worse, Nick’s mother (Michelle Yeoh), who is adamant that he must marry a woman with stature.
The Singaporean society depicted, per the title, revolves around obscene wealth, status, and extreme expectations. Some characters literally throw money in the air. Surprisingly, the camera tends to linger for several extended moments on shirtless men, a rarity in romantic comedies. While the film features an all-Asian cast, the narrative avoids Asian stereotypes. One the characters is an over-the-top gay man, whereas the same character was much more refined and subtle in the book. I wish the screenwriters had depicted Oliver more like he was in the book. Refreshingly, this Hollywood romance featured a heroine who does not require saving by a man. If anything, Nick needs rescuing from Singaporean society. Rachel loves her life, and she and Nick have a healthy, respectful relationship. In between all the couture fashions and extreme wealth, the narrative contains an underlying message about loving yourself, staying true to your principles, and addressing problems about dignity and class.
Hollywood has churned out some truly atrocious romantic comedies in the past fifteen years. Personally, I think the romantic comedy genre peaked in the 1960s. Crazy Rich Asians manages to avoid a lot of the modern clichés found in romcoms. The story is not wildly original (it is basically Cinderella) but the pacing and narrative are well presented. Modern romcoms have an annoying tendency of portraying the heroines as rather bumbling individuals just waiting for a man to solve their issues. Not Rachel Chu. She is capable, clever, and completely in control of her life. She may temporarily suffer from the extreme combativeness of Nick’s family, but she never falters. Rachel is a well-drawn, down-to-earth heroine who, while not totally relatable, is an aspirational character, and Wu plays her perfectly.
A lot of the other women in the cast are great, if underdeveloped. Yeoh adds some depth to Eleanor, the ice queen of Singapore. The Eleanor in the movie lacks a lot of the development and three dimensions of the character in the book. A lot of the Elaenor and Rachel relationship is condensed in the movie and loses a lot of the nuance. Gemma Chan portrays Nick’s glamorous cousin Astrid, who must navigate the complexities of a marriage where the wife is rich and the husband is not. Astrid plays a major role in the book and her entire story line is condensed to under fifteen minutes of screen time. While Gemma does a great job playing Astrid, the screenplay deprived Astrid of all her character development and emotion. I hope the second movie gives Astrid a better character arc. Awkwafina provides the comedy as Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s wealthy college buddy. Ken Jeong play her father to great comedic effect. Goh Peik Lin is a much more serious character in the book and I felt the movie made her more into a caricature than a fully developed person. Though Awkwafina and Jeong had a nice on screen chemistry.
The movie presents an interesting take on the difference in American and Chinese culture. American culture is presented as the prioritization of career, ambition, and happiness over family. Whereas Chinese culture is shown as emphasizing family first, career and happiness are distant seconds. Both arguments greatly over simply both cultures, but it is still an interesting discussion.
At the heart of the story is the everyday hardships, joys, and difficulties that arise in families. For Rachel, family is a source of sustenance. Raised by her single mother, Rachel has always had the full support of her mother in all her endeavors, both professional and romantic. Nick’s family is a clan that expects him to serve as pseudo-prince in waiting. He views his family fondly but also as a golden prison from which he wants to escape. For Nick’s mother, family represents a fortress built to repel invaders like Rachel, a “poor” Chinese-American who will never be Chinese enough to fit in. Nick’family is actually a lot crazier in the book, the movie versions are rather tame.
A couple of key sequences from the book—the bachelor party on a barge and the bachelorette party on the Indonesian island—are quite rushed and glossed over. The script tends to range from extremely humorous (the sharp-witted preface, a game of mah-jongg depicted as mortal combat; one-liners like “A lot of children are starving in America”) to heavy handed (a partygoer heckles Rachel with “Hey, Cinderella, what’s the matter, you’ve got to return your coach at midnight?”). I wish the humor had stayed more consisted throughout the whole film. The book is not funny in a laugh-out-loud manner, so the screenwriters tried to inject some over-the-top moments to mixed effect.
However, the film’s appeal transcends the flaws. The film is equal parts trendy and endearingly old-fashioned. I would recommend reading the book since the movie cuts out a lot of important background information. But you do not need to have read the book to enjoy the film. Crazy Rich Asians succeeds because it does not try to be anything other than a story about a guy who loves a girl and the compromises they make to have a successful relationship.
Now, where can I find a good looking, wealthy real estate heir?