In a lot of ways, Crazy Rich Asians is exactly what you’d get if you asked someone to write a generic rom-com from memory. It has all the required elements: family secrets, a disapproving mother, someone upper middle class dating someone fabulously wealthy and feeling inferior about it, a trying-on-dresses montage, and a climactic moment running through an airport. If the film were a house we’d say it kept the old bones. But in this case, the familiar elements are packaged so appealingly that it’s hard not to enjoy. The leads are adorable, the scenery exotic, the costumes beautiful, and best of all it has a secret weapon: food porn.
All rom-coms are lifestyle porn to some extent, and Crazy Rich Asians wisely doesn’t attempt to disguise this fact (hell, it’s in the title). We like to think critics loved Call Me By Your Name because of the acting and the yearning and that final scene about the bright burning, short lasting nature of youthful love and lust, but you can’t truly discount the simultaneous appeal of thinking “I want that life” the whole time you’re watching it. Crazy Rich Asians understands this.
Crazy Rich Asians is kind of a K-pop, overtly bubblegum version of the lifestyle porn love song. It has all the usual rom-com tropes but none of them feel unearned or shoehorned. I don’t know that I could ever fully forgive director Jon M. Chu for directing the Virgin America safety video, that seven-plus minute nightmare (yes, I’ve timed it) featuring a tween rapping about oxygen masks, but even I have to admit that this material is particularly suited to Chu’s brand of campy bedazzled earnestness.
Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an adorably dimpled NYU economics teacher (she beats a boy at poker, supposedly in order to teach game theory, in her only classroom scene) who has fallen in love with Nick Young (hunky Henry Golding) without ever learning his secret: he’s crazy rich! Specifically, he’s the scion of a wealthy family of Chinese industrialists who emigrated to Singapore a few generations ago (Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan is himself the heir to a Singaporean banking fortune). And as we all know, nothing causes discord in a rom-com relationship like one person being disgustingly rich while the other is merely deeply comfortable.
Nonetheless, Nick drags Rachel down to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding, where she meets his icy, disapproving family (mother Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh, and grandmother Ah Ma, played by Lisa Lu) and suffers all of the usual rom-com indignities, from being told “you’re not one of us”, James Spader style (only this time in subtitles) to an even greater diss involving a barracuda. If you’re ever wondering how to spice up a formulaic story, you could do a lot worse than “throw in a barracuda.”
The appeal of Crazy Rich Asians, of course, does not rest on a groundbreaking story. The all-Asian descent cast — no crowbarred Caucasians — is groundbreaking in its own way. With so many famous actors of Asian descent, and so many blockbusters financed in large part by China — The Meg, with a partly Chinese cast and prominent scenes set in Shanghai comes to mind — it’d be easy to assume that the conventional wisdom that “Asian stories” don’t have mainstream appeal no longer applies. But I remember interviewing the author of A Kim Jong-Il Production a few years back, a dynamite story about a kidnapped North Korean director so wild that it would put Argo or Unbroken to shame, and him saying he couldn’t get it optioned specifically because it would have to be an all-Asian cast. So, progress. And yet, representation alone does not make a story.
Chu pulls the old trick of using a familiar framework to introduce some elements of Asian culture to a mainstream audience, but even that doesn’t fully explain the appeal of Crazy Rich Asians. Mostly, it’s candy. The costumes shine, the scenery stuns, and every time I was about to stop caring whether these two gorgeous, comfortably monied cosmopolitan characters would ever combine tracts of land, CRA would pull me back in with some food porn. (Jimmy O. Yang, aka Jin Yang from Silicon Valley, and Awkwafina are also there for comic relief, the former more successfully than the latter, who’s getting better but doesn’t quite have the traditional acting chops yet).