The cast and producer of Crazy Rich Asians were present at the screening I attended and said a few words to kick us off. At this point the film — the first with an Asian-American principal cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 — had been number one in America for three weeks, so they talked about a ‘cultural shift’ and how this was ‘as much a movement as a movie’. I confess, a lump came to my throat along with a tear to my eye, which is odd, given I’m usually such a hard-hearted old trout. It’s now difficult to know what to say next, but the safest thing has to be: while I’m pleased the film exists, and we should all be pleased this film exists, it is still only an average romcom. Or to put it another way: it is not a terrific film but it is terrific that it’s a film, if that makes sense.
Based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, and directed by Jon M. Chu, it features Constance Wu as Rachel our heroine, who is an NYU economics professor — always an NYU economics professor, or a human-rights lawyer; never a chicken farmer. She has been dating Nick (Henry Golding) for a year in New York, and they are wholly in love. But what she doesn’t know is that he is the beloved scion of one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. Putting aside the fact that this scenario may be somewhat implausible in the age of Google and so on, you do have to wonder what they’ve talked about for the past 12 months. The weather? Is it reasonable to wonder about this? Or am I just being too old-trouty?
However, the truth dawns when Nick invites her to his best friend’s wedding, which means a trip to Singapore and being inculcated into the world of the super-rich with its lavish banquets and lavish gems and lavish clothes and the sort of eye-popping profligate spending that you may or may not get off on. (I do, a little.) But there has to be an obstacle, which here takes the form of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who is —how shall I put this? — at least less underwritten than the other characters. (Nick is hot and a nice guy yet beyond that, zilch.) Eleanor does not consider Rachel good enough. Rachel was brought up poor by a single mother. Rachel is American, whereas Eleanor had more traditional plans for her son. Rachel must therefore prove herself, and later, after the script’s most manipulative twist, she must also give an account of herself, while Nick, who has basically kept a massive secret from her while they discussed the weather, is never asked to account for himself at all. (Sorry. Too trouty again?)
As Nick and Rachel get on with it, and then don’t, and then do, there are subplots and secondary characters. There’s Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick’s cousin, who is in an unhappy marriage but ultimately seems to find empowerment through a $1.3 million pair of earrings, and Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin Goh, who, as played by Awkwafina, brings some much-needed liveliness to the proceedings, as does Goh’s family. The best line by far is when the Goh patriarch tells one of his kids to eat up because ‘there are starving people in America!’ I laughed.
So it has its fun moments, but it’s all completely familiar, with elements of Cinderella and Pride and Prejudice and Pretty Woman, and the direction is leaden and includes scenes that should have narrative repercussions but don’t. For instance, when Rachel is lavishly flown by helicopter to a lavish island for the bride-to-be’s lavish hen party, she is ganged up on in a way that is so horrific it would surely traumatise anyone for life. But it’s then just forgotten about. Performance-wise, Yeoh brings some charisma and presence, yet the cultural clash that should perhaps have been at the heart of the film — Eleanor believes that as Rachel is American-Chinese she will put herself first, unlike the Chinese-Chinese who prioritise family — is only touched upon every now and then.
Still, at the time of writing, the film has earned $130 million at the box office, and has garnered mostly five-star reviews, so it’s doing something right. And what it’s doing right is showing white people that they don’t own Hollywood any more, and maybe everyone wants to applaud that. In this way, it’s a terrific film. Even if it isn’t.