Crazy Rich Asians is a movie with an audacious nose. Despite its roots as a boilerplate romantic comedy – outsider navigates partner’s family’s idiosyncrasies on the path to true love – this film undoubtedly has set the path for where movies on the big screen are headed.
The outsider and protagonist and principal focus of the movie is an Asian-American NYU economics professor (!), Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who will accompany her ridiculously gorgeous boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to a wedding in Singapore. She will also meet his family for the first time. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is the golden child in the family of obscenely wealthy Chinese real estate moguls, though he has been passing himself off as your run-of-the-mill Cambridge-educated New York City financier type. Ho hum.
So, after a stop in the first-class mile-high club, Rachel lands in Singapore and spends a jovial evening sampling the best that the food court has to offer, which is a lot. The food scenes in this movie are outrageous. In the morning, she heads over to see her college roommate, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who lives with her extravagantly wealthy, but not that wealthy, family in a gated estate. It is here that Rachel learns that Nick hasn’t been forthright with her about his insane levels of wealth. Indeed, it seems that all of Asia (and, as we have seen, all real Asians) is in on the fortunes and trajectory of Nick Young and the Young family. Awkwafina is the star of the show, for sure, and the time she, along with her family, are on the screen provides the best comedy the movie has to offer. Her dad is Ken Jeong! And, the stop-off at the Lin compound is sort of halfway house between Rachel’s real world and the complete fantasy world of obscene wealth and opulence that we step into on the run-up to the wedding.
Unfortunately, the owners and benefactors of all of this wealth are not beautiful people, but instead are highly territorial and not at all charitable to those outside of their sphere. First and foremost, although Rachel is an NYU economics professor, an alpha position if there ever was one, her considerable achievements are seen as singularly American in nature, and not something to be either admired or valued by the Young family. Despite her trappings of an upper income existence by being a highly paid professional in New York City, she is effectively a non-entity in the face of real wealth and privilege. There are probably some ironies here of the economics professor coming to terms with real wealth that will pop into my head after I post this. Plus, she’s an American.
Second, there are all sorts of matriarchal machinations going on here that I am sure I haven’t put together. The movie features Nick’s mother and grandmother as the major power brokers, and I don’t even think Nick’s dad appears on screen (does he?). To put it another way, Ken Jeong is the only face of the male head of household portrayed, and his face looks a lot like a past-his-prime Elvis. Third, Nick’s possibly wonderful sister has a husband who can’t seem to get his male mojo working as the non-primary breadwinner, although he seems to work out a lot. And, of course, there is Rachel herself, whose mother took to America as the safety valve out of her own personal cultural entrapments.
On the man side, I don’t think we have a single admirable male character. Nick, I think, is left deliberately undeveloped, because the inevitabilities here (and what the final scene seems to suggest) is that there is just no way out of this particular box of luxury. His destiny is that of a rich dickhead, a class which most-to-all of his male brethren have established their bona fides in the course of the film. Maybe this is why Dudley Moore’s Arthur spent his life in a bathtub drunk out of his skull? Or why Michael Corleone just gave in and stepped into his father’s shoes?
Well, anyway, there is a lot going on for a formulaic rom com – centuries of culture and history to untangle, after all.
And, yes, we laughed until we cried.
The movie features also some behavioral economics and non-cooperative game theory that I imagine is fleshed out a bit more in the book. In the opening scene, Rachel wins a poker hand by bluffing as a way to explain the concept of “loss aversion” to her class, a phenomenon that people are harder hit by a loss of $10 than on an equivalent gain of $10. I just read a piece on female poker players, and it turns out that female poker players don’t win a lot of hands by bluffing alpha males. This was a minor nagging bother as things marched on, but it wasn’t until finishing up this post that I realized that when Rachel was not bluffing when she eventually went toe-to-toe with the movie’s alpha male, Nick’s mother (playing Mahjong, however, not poker. Okay, the real showdown wasn’t about Mahjong, but, whatever). So the movie gets the economics right after all!
I guess there is probably a metaphor about playing poker and counting up gains and losses along the way that would help us to explicate the movie better, but with the sensory overload of food and culture and trappings of wealth it is hard to keep everything straight.
A better title for the movie would probably have been Filthy Rich Asians, because I get the sense that there is nothing particularly crazy about how the wealthy – or any of us – close ranks to protect their own and keep the outsiders out. Gates are a good start. Armed guards don’t hurt. And if that doesn’t work, there is the straight up nastiness. Most of us don’t get past the gate, so the movie ostensibly puts us in the place of the rest of the world, on the outside looking into a world at this different plane, this alternate reality reserved for what is essentially modern royalty.
So, you can blanch at the naked celebration of wealth inequality, or you can sit back and enjoy the show for what it is. I recommend the latter, though I must admit that the more I write about it, the less confident I am in that recommendation.