Romantic comedies have resurfaced in critical consciousness, largely thanks to Asian creators (and despite steady production by black creators). For recent examples of the genre, think Kumail Nanjiani's The Big Sick, Aziz Ansari's Master of None and Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project. Asians in America have gravitated toward that genre, partly to bask in its flights of fancy and desire — and, quietly, to challenge stereotypes of a submissive, homogenous group of robotic workers. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the anticipation of Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians.
If romantic comedies traffic in romantic optimism, then the film Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-seller, hits all the right notes. Scandal ensues when the charming Nick Young (Henry Golding), secretly heir to a Chinese-Singaporean real estate fortune, brings his accomplished, lower-class Chinese-American girlfriend, Rachel Chu (Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu), home for his best friend’s wedding.
Crazy Rich Asians is planted firmly in the realm of women and beauty. The obvious difference between the characters of Crazy Rich Asians and the characters of previous Asian-led films is the former’s immense wealth. By that standard, Wu’s Rachel is not pretty, tall or well-dressed enough to keep up with Nick’s life, necessitating a beloved, though sadistic rom-com staple: the makeover.
The opulence of the clothes and jewelry begins to take on the quality of an advertisement; of what and for whom is up for debate. But these images are too aware of the ones that have come before; they’re diametrically opposed to stereotypes of Asians laboring or laundering clothes. This is especially true of Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), a Princess Diana type, who at the start of the film purchases multimillion-dollar earrings that she hides from her lower-class husband Michael (played by an underutilized Pierre Png). The thrill of beauty is amped up here, the riotous fun drowning out the social commentary.
While the film attempts to situate identity as its emotional heart, Rachel’s sense of self isn’t easily shaken. “I’m so Chinese, I’m an economics professor with lactose intolerance,” Rachel says when her free-spirited mother (Tan Kheng Hua) worries she’s too American for the old money. If Rachel does struggle with her identity, Chu’s pacing leaves little room to investigate these nuances. Instead, Wu is tasked with delivering sentimental monologues about her background in a believable way. When Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), and her mother-in-law (Lisa Lu) try to cast doubt on Rachel, by way of a long-buried family secret, the drama and subsequent fallout feel manufactured.
Rachel’s cat-and-mouse game to win Eleanor’s respect is the most enjoyable thread of the film, though, with Wu, earnest and scrappy, finding her complement in Yeoh’s reserved menace. At the top of a grand staircase in the Young family home, Eleanor confides her own difficulties with getting along with Nick’s grandmother. Towering over her, Eleanor delivers the final blow: “That is how I know you are not good enough for Nick” — Yeoh’s control cutting through the screen as Wu’s face falls.
In stark contrast, Nick’s father is absent for the entire movie, and most of the men, save for Nico Santos’ Oliver T’sein (the “rainbow sheep of the family”), are barely present. Golding does the best with what he’s given, but Nick is more symbol than person. He keeps a number of secrets from Rachel but is never made to account for them. His grand gesture, procuring Eleanor’s engagement ring for Rachel, is indicative of Eleanor’s acceptance rather than his own comeuppance. That filmmakers' agonized over casting a character who is essentially an impeccably dressed mannequin is more an indictment of white hegemonic tastemaking and its discomfort with Asian male desirability than anything else. (The casting of Golding, who is biracial, has drawn criticism from various groups, often dismissed as too focused on racial purity.)
Other archetypes offer more nuance. The sassy best friend, Goh Peik Lin, is played by rapper-actor Awkwafina, whose comedic timing is so impeccable, her co-option of AAVE frequently goes unmentioned. It is fortunate that her tiresome “blaccent,” still played for laughs, also offers deeper commentary on newly monied Singaporeans and the exportation of black American cool. The Goh house is a huge, gilded affair, vaguely inspired by Donald Trump’s bathroom. Rachel endures a lavish meal with the Gohs, in which Peik Lin’s father warns everyone to eat up because children are starving in America — an acknowledgement and dismissal of fears about Asian global dominance in a post-NAFTA world. Everything about the Gohs, from their Trumpian decor to Peik Lin’s mimicry, serves to connote something undesirable, standing in stark contrast to the Youngs’ pristine, ancient wealth, and offering a tantalizing peek into new strains of Singapore’s social stratification.
The most interesting moments in the film are also its most coy. Astrid suffers silently through her husband’s affair with another woman, ignited because her wealth makes him insecure. At the film’s close, she leaves him, donning the earrings she once hid. It speaks to the dismal state of Asian representation that this display is meant to be a moment of triumph and not ridicule. For all its carnival-like antics, Crazy Rich Asians is all too aware of its own spectacle.