Crazy Rich Asians is like a film from another era — a sweeping romance that re-captures the thrills of genres oldest entries. But, it is also a movie very much of the now; the film’s almost entirely Asian cast wouldn’t have been possible when big-budget romantic comedies were at their most popular. Time, like the classic genre, have changed however and director Jon M. Chu has made a movie that is all at once classic and fresh, cliched and exciting.
After a year of dating Nick Young (Henry Golding), Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a successful NYU professor discovers that her boyfriend is the heir to a Singaporean business empire. After being confronted with this information, Rachel accompanies Nick to his home-city to attend a wedding and meet Nick’s family. But Rachel’s outsider status sets her at odds with Nick’s harsh, traditionalist mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh).
If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because it is. But the charm of Crazy Rich Asians isn’t its plot — every story beat has been done before and done to death. But somehow the film doesn’t feel like a derivative, rehash of genre tropes but rather a delightful realization of what romances can be. Jon Chu balances genuine character moments and over-the-top humor to create a film that feels meaningful without feeling too self-serious. Rachel’s struggle to fit in is more often played for drama than laughs and ultimately becomes an allegory for immigration and xenophobia. Chu is able to explore so much by letting his fun, energetic, and flawed characters take center stage rather than focusing too much on the simple story premise.
Though Nick and his family are the focal points of the film, Rachel is the main character. Wu’s dorky performance lends a whimsy to her humor but doesn’t overshadow her more introspective moments. The final confrontation between Rachel and Eleanor is the best showcase of Wu’s range — she’s emotional and confident while expressing deep vulnerability and complete control.
The male characters are less interesting, but no less charming. Nick is a fairly blank slate, an ideal romantic partner who’s largely without flaws. But he still gets a few moments to win over the audience, particularly when Nick is hanging out with Colin (Chris Pang), his best friend. The two have a surprisingly honest, open relationship: one that’s rare in major Hollywood movies, especially romances. After Colin’s bachelor party goes wrong, the pair escape to a private lake where they can relax, drink a beer and talk. It’s there that Nick reveals his intention to marry Rachel, but rather than blindly support his friend, Colin challenges his choice, asking whether Rachel is ready for a crazy rich life. And Colin is right — while the two men float on the water Rachel is being relentlessly hazed by the wealthy women at Colin’s fiance Araminta’s (Sonoya Mizuno), bachelorette party. It’s a startling contrast, but more than that it’s a subtle subversion of romcom tropes — marriage isn’t the best option, at least not immediately.
The side characters are equally, if not more engaging. Astrid (Gemma Chan), one of Nick’s cousins, gets a rich and well-rounded side story that, despite her limited screen time, is loaded with pathos. As part a member of the Young family, Astrid is also exceedingly wealthy, but her husband Michael (Pierre Png) is not. Their relationship crumbles throughout the movie, as Michael strains under Astrid’s achievements and family connections. Her arc explores the fragility of masculinity and the power of independence: subjects with a much greater weight than the simple love between Rachel and Nick.
Eleanor, the Young family matriarch, is a well rounded and sympathetic antagonist. The third act is spent examining the similarities and differences between Eleanor and Rachel, delving into Eleanor’s difficult past with the Young family. By drawing such clear parallels between the viewpoint character and the villain Chu humanizes an otherwise Disney-esque antagonist. Naturally, Yeoh’s performance is the key to Eleanor’s character. Both the character and the actress are constantly surprising you; she can be scary, but she can be warm too and that dichotomy is reflected in Yeoh’s imperious posture and rare, kind facial expressions or line deliveries. Despite being the villain of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Eleanor is never evil for the sake of evil — she’s doing what she believes is right.
Though not nearly as deep, Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), is an endless source of comedy. Awkwafina infuses an absurdism into Peik Lin’s delivery and movement. She struts through scenes with the jubilant bounciness of a 1930’s cartoon character and though her character has no basis in reality, her presence is nothing short of delightful. The same goes for her extended family, who share Peik Lin’s inappropriate and condescending sense of humor. A dinner scene in the Goh household is one of the film’s funniest: Peik Lin’s parents relentlessly and hilariously mock Rachel’s ignorance of the wealthy world and Rachel can do nothing but watch and wait for their antics to stop.
The production is lavish across the board. Each party scene in the film (and there are many) feels both visually and aurally distinct; Chinese covers of American pop songs lend each scene a familiar yet distinct flavor while the various Singapore settings of each scene are continuously exciting.
Even the cliched climactic meeting between Nick and Rachel in a Singaporean airport is fresh and exciting, largely thanks to a Chinese cover of Coldplay’s Yellow which plays in the background. The melodrama of the song pairs well with the melodrama of the scene, creating an emotional, albeit excessive, display of true love.
Crazy Rich Asians is big in a way many modern romances aren’t; there’s a grandeur and opulence to every set and costume and musical choice. The film feels like a modern iteration of mid-twentieth century romances, full of the sweeping elegance, exhilarating romances, and charming characters of a bygone era. It’s full of cliches too — the movie ends with an airport proposal — but it supports the more trite plot elements with a boundless exuberance and creativity.