It might be too early to declare this the renaissance of the romantic comedy. With Netflix’s rom-com hit, Set It Up, earlier this summer and now WB’s Crazy Rich Asians hitting theaters this month, audiences are beginning to wonder where the romantic comedy has been the last decade. We can spend minutes and hours dissecting the emergence of superhero epics, peak TV, and streaming technology for how the tastes of moviegoers have begun to evolve. But really, you can read that thinkpiece elsewhere because regardless of those reasons, I’m excited that the rom-com is back, stronger and more refined than ever. Crazy Rich Asians is a testament to that, one that embraces the spectacle that Hollywood has become accustomed to, along with thoughtful storytelling and an incredibly charming and talented cast.
Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asians brings together an all-Asian cast set in the world of Singapore’s ridiculously wealthy and elite society. Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor from New York City. Wu acts opposite newcomer Henry Golding, who plays her dashing boyfriend from Singapore, Nick Young. It’s the first time in a very long time that two Asian actors are leading a mainstream Hollywood film. After passing up “life-changing money” from Netflix so that the film can be played in theaters, director Jon M. Chu and producers enlisted top Asian talent from around the world to bring to life Kwan’s characters authentically, while also providing some way overdue representation for Asians onscreen. Joining Wu and Golding is a cast that includes Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina and Ken Jeong to name a few. After years of stereotypical portrayals of Asians in film, from simply unflattering to downright offensive, Crazy Rich Asians is more than just another standard issue rom-com that harkens to years past. It’s an opportunity to introduce one of many positive perspectives from an underrepresented group to a worldwide audience.
That ultimately means that more weight is placed on the shoulders of these crazy rich Asians to perform well at box-office. It’s certainly not fair, and I personally hope it defies expectations since it’s one of the most enjoyable films to come out this summer, even 2018 alone. What makes it great is just how charming this film is. From its opening scene that conveys the sheer wealth and status Nick’s family has and the discrimination they still face despite it, the film sets off to tell a story focused on family and identity with Rachel’s struggle to reconcile her American identity with the expectations of Nick’s Singaporean family.
Despite its international setting, the film is distinctly American, in that it centers on Rachel’s journey. As a Chinese-American, she’s a “fish-out-of-water” metaphorically—or almost literally at one point during a Godfather-esque scene in the middle of the film—once she enters that first-class flight lounge to Singapore with Nick, unaware of what awaits her. The film’s choice of having Rachel discover Nick’s world with such surprise is admittedly eye-roll worthy, since—come on, Nick—he should have prepared her for his family, as his cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), tells him. However, once the film moves past the petty ploys and snide remarks from the socialites and snobs, it finds its path with Rachel and Nick’s mom, Eleanor (played by Michelle Yeoh with such brilliant elegance and subtlety) by exploring the dynamic between them. Because it comes down not to what everyone thinks of Rachel (gold-digger, ABC, whatever else they come up), but what Eleanor thinks of her.
It’s where these values that are so settled in one’s cultural traditions clash and offers a sense of universality to the film. Eleanor believes that Rachel’s ambition will hinder her son’s chance of inheriting the family’s wealth and business. Rachel, and Nick for that matter, don’t see why they can’t manage to do both. The fact that the couple’s major dilemma revolves around them finding balance in their relationship is an interesting as well as modern idea, especially in the rom-com setting. That is reflected in Astrid’s relationship with her husband, Michael (Pierre Png), who doesn’t come from a family as rich or of the same upper-class ancestry as hers. Astrid’s need to hide her spending from Michael explicitly shows us how he doesn’t feel like her equal. The film does not develop these characters enough to make this point clear, but it manages to be apparent by Astrid’s final confrontation with Michael toward the end of the film.
Astrid, along with Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Peik Lin’s father, Mr. Goh (Ken Jeong), and Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos) add new layers to the film’s setting. Peik Lin and Mr. Goh represent the nouveau riche of Singapore with their excessive house that is partly inspired by “Donald Trump’s bathroom.” It’s a stark contrast to Nick and Astrid’s family, who as Peik Lin explains to Rachel are considered “old money.” Oliver, who essentially describes himself as the poor cousin, also operates as Rachel’s guide into navigating high society. They make up the majority of the film’s comedy with Awkwafina being an absolute scene-stealer. Her comedic timing and entire look is perfectly funny, and it’s all tied up in how endearing it is to watch Rachel have such a wonderful friend like Peik Lin.
Crazy Rich Asians weaves together comedy, drama and romance together effortlessly, while incorporating a number of interesting themes that elevate the story. That confidence is apparent in the filmmaking; Chu directs this world full of color and sights with style, letting the actors and the film’s settings unfold this story to the audience. It’s not perfect, but it is impossible to not fall in love with Rachel, Nick and company. It’s a celebration of love, family and culture, one that showcases just how culturally rich and diverse our world is, and hopefully it will inspire audiences to seek out films centered on all kinds of Asian stories.