D: Jon M. Chu / 121m
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Chris Pang, Jing Lusi, Nico Santos, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, Pierre Png
In a summer that’s been dominated (as usual) by superhero movies, tired remakes, and special effects driven action movies, one movie has “broken out” and caught the attention of critics and audiences alike. It’s billed as a romantic comedy – though if there’s ever likely to be a breakout movie each summer it’s likely to be a comedy of some description – and it’s been hailed as not only a breakout movie but a breakthrough movie as well. The movie (surprise!) is Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s the first time since The Joy Luck Club (1993) that any feature has had a predominantly Asian cast (though it appears that an early producer thought it would be a good idea to whitewash the lead character, Rachel). Watching the movie in the wake of all this positive feedback is interesting, partly to see if it can or does live up to the hype it’s received, and partly to see if it succeeds on its own merits. Inevitably, it does and it doesn’t.
Let’s get the casting out of the way first. Perhaps a better way of describing the cast would be to say that they’re of “predominantly Asian heritage”, but that aside, it is good to see the major roles filled by recognisably Asian actors, and especially as the story is set within the confines of a recognisably Asian family and its attendant culture. But if you’ve seen one romantic comedy where the girlfriend or the boyfriend is the outsider who needs to win over a dysfunctional extended family, then much of what’s on offer in Crazy Rich Asians will be very familiar to you. Indeed, the only real difference between this movie and many others is the fact that it is an Asian family that’s on display – and display is perhaps the best word to describe what’s happening. In everyone’s rush to congratulate the movie, they seem to have forgotten that we’ve actually been here before, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and its equally culturally exploitative sequel. That the cast is predominantly Asian doesn’t matter when the same romantic comedy tropes and characterisations are trotted out, and when we’re asked to laugh at comic behaviour that’s been seen too often before. It’s not enough to have an ethnic twist when the material remains the same.
And then there’s the whole idea that the movie is a romantic comedy. There is humour in Crazy Rich Asians, much of it delivered by Awkwafina as the kind of quirky best friend to the heroine that seems de rigeuer these days, or Santos’ stereotypical gay fashion designer. But in reality this is a romantic drama that has comic overtones. There are long stretches where the material isn’t even trying to raise a laugh as it seeks to explore ideas of cultural isolationism (or indigenous racism), bitterness, marital betrayal, emotional regret, depression and envy. The obstacles that loved up couple Rachel (Wu) and Nick (Golding) have to overcome lead to some very dramatic sequences, and the hurtful behaviour of Nick’s mother (Yeoh) towards Rachel borders on the perverse. And that’s without a subplot involving Chan as Nick’s sister, Astrid, whose unhappiness causes her to binge shop and hide the purchases from her husband (Png). Perhaps the makers were aware of the darkness inherent in the material from the start, but felt that promoting the movie as a romantic drama wouldn’t attract as many viewers. And therein lies the irony: as a romantic drama it’s much more effective than as a romantic comedy.
Rating: 7/10 – with very good performances in service to a good script, solid direction, and production design that emphasises the opulent above the mundane every time (the wedding is a particular standout), Crazy Rich Asians is let down by its unapologetic sense of cultural appropriation; not as groundbreaking as everyone makes out, it’s still a refreshing change from the usual summer blockbuster fare, but definitely not the movie it’s been hyped up to be.