Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a Chinese-American professor of Economics at NYU. She is dating the charming and handsome Nick Young (Henry Golding) and they are very happy. Then Nick invites Rachel to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore and she learns Nick’s family is rich. And not just normal rich. Insane rich. The kind of rich that doesn’t worry about market crashes and global warming because they have 5 star bunkers staffed with Michelin chefs waiting to protect their pampered asses while the rest of us are treading water. Soon Rachel is plunged in to a world of catty in-fighting and luxurious excess as she copes with the demands Nick’s family places on him, especially his icy and cunning mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). What follows is more drama than comedy as Rachel tries to navigate this new and hostile world as the fish-out-of-water while holding on to her relationship with Nick.
Director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) highlights the wealth of the Young family with a never ending display of gorgeous people, clothes, and locations that shine and pop off the screen. The movie is beautiful, no question, and if you are looking for a two hour travelogue to entice a visit to Singapore it works spectacularly well.
I can see why this movie was so popular. I just wish it has been a better movie. First off it seems aimed at those who have read the novels (the movie is the first adaptation of a three part series by Kevin Kwan). Nick’s family is so large its hard to keep the various aunts, cousins, and friends straight. Several scenes seem to be in the movie as fan service, including an inscrutable finale over a game of Mahjong and a mid-credits tease for the sequel. I’m not one to say every movie needs to be aimed at me and my sensibilities. If anything I prefer stories that plunge me in to a new environment and culture entirely outside of my own. But there is nothing here for me to hold on to. Most of the characters outside of the main cast are rich and entitled assholes. The wealth and decadence on display is obscene and other than the Singapore setting and change in cultural norms this is a standard princess fairy tale right down to the last minute makeover by the catty gay friend.
The cast saves the movie with standout turns from Awkwafina (as Rachel’s noveau riche friend Peik) Constance Wu and Henry Golding but Michelle Yeoh is the star here. Her portrayal of family matriarch Eleanor avoids easy cliche while so many other characters are nothing more than archetypes. She is in opposition to Rachel throughout the movie, but rather than being a villain because its in the script you understand where she is coming from and why she is acting as she is. While most of the rest of the family is simply luxuriating in the wealth they have done nothing to earn, Eleanor carries the burden of being the one that knows the true cost. Yeoh delivers a nuanced and riveting performance that is Oscar worthy and should earn her a nomination this year.
In the end Crazy Rich Asians demonstrates more than anything that Americans don’t have a lock on being wealthy and awful assholes. Not every character in the movie is terrible, but there are so many that do nothing but flaunt their absolutely obscene riches that their presence becomes tedious. More than anything I’m scratching my head wondering how a movie that celebrates the top 1% of the 1% in 2018 is getting such acclaim. Yes, representation is important. But did that representation have to be tied to a movie as weightless and ostentatious as Crazy Rich Asians?