My first draft of this review started with a disclaimer saying that, whatever my opinions of Crazy Rich Asians may be, its all-Asian cast is worth celebrating as a landmark for representation. Then my editor sent me an article explaining how the movie’s depiction of Singapore is analogous to a depiction of America only featuring white people, and now I don’t know what to think. In the context of Hollywood’s shameful history of white actors playing Asian characters, this still feels like a step in the right direction, though it’s hard to forgive the ignorance of Singaporean racial diversity. This stuff is complicated and there are two sides to every issue. Anyway, Crazy Rich Asians is awful.
The movie stars Constance Wu and Henry Golding as Rachel and Nick, a young couple living in New York City. She’s an accomplished economics professor (the youngest in the department), and he’s the celebrity son of the wealthiest developers in Singapore. But here’s the kicker: Rachel knows nothing of Nick’s background even though they’ve been dating for a year, a detail that the movie gracefully delivers by having Nick point out to Rachel that they’ve been dating for a year. All becomes clear when Nick invites Rachel to Singapore, where, in the days leading up to Nick’s best friend’s wedding, she meets his vast network of eccentric friends and relatives and marvels at the culinary, architectural, and sartorial indulgences of the 0.0000001%.
She also finds herself butting heads with Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Nick’s mother, who resents Rachel for her American upbringing and untraditional view that kids should, in life and in love, follow their passions rather than their parents’ expectations. The problem is that this would-be-interesting tension plays out in the dullest, most uncinematic way possible, with Rachel and Eleanor spelling out their opposing worldviews for each other without a hint of action or subtext. We see them stop in the middle of, say, making dumplings, to look each other in the eyes and remind themselves and the audience that, gee, these two characters sure do have different ways of looking at things. My objection to this is not that it’s unrealistic (though it is, to the point where I’m not sure that screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim have ever seen two human beings disagree with each other), but that it prevents the conflict from manifesting in any compelling visual moments. It feels less like a movie and more like a point-counterpoint op-ed piece.
Over-expository dialogue is a constant problem for the script, which is full of ham-fisted lines that I was sad to watch the talented cast struggle to bring to life. Characters remind themselves of their relationships and worldviews incessantly, presumably for the benefit of the audience, though I can’t say I appreciated the help. Case in point: Nick and his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) can’t seem to go three seconds without saying something to the effect of “I’ve known you since you were [insert generic signifier of early youth],” as if they’re both terrified that the other will suffer a sudden bout of amnesia and forget that they have, in fact, been friends for a very long time. And while I’m generally opposed to the view that a movie needs a good script in order to be good, there’s nothing in the movie’s style that would come close to making up for the bafflingly simplistic writing. It seems director Jon M. Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul were so confident in the lavish beauty of their conspicuously expensive sets that they didn’t feel the need to do anything interesting with the camera, save for an early sequence representing visually the process of a photo going viral, which promises a much more exciting two hours than the movie delivers.
What it ultimately delivers is a rom-com that has neither rom nor com. When it comes to romance, our two leads are blandly likable and little else. This is a love story of the most noxiously Hollywood sort, one that never dares to be more than two attractive people saying sweet-sounding things to each other. As for comedy, Crazy Rich Asians usually aims for the kind of unbearably mild humor in which the characters are aware of how funny they are (or, rather, how funny they’re trying to be). It pains me to say that this is especially true for the character of Peik Lin, Rachel’s college friend, who ends up being utterly insufferable despite a committed performance from Awkwafina, who, even more so than the rest of the cast, deserves better material.
The movie’s comedic failure is a symptom of its political failure. In comedy, crazy rich people tend, for good reason, to be the butt of the joke, and some of the best comedy ever made comes from skewering those who have every material comfort. But Crazy Rich Asians strays from this tradition of afflicting the comfortable because it wants its array of fabulously wealthy supporting characters to remain likable to audiences. There are exceptions – certain individual rich characters who are mean to Rachel – but they’re painted as abusers of a lifestyle that is never itself subject to satire or scrutiny. The movie refuses to say anything about the life of excess other than that it’s a whole lot of fun, and so the jokes are reduced to pointless quips and quirks. We’re meant to enjoy spending time with all these fun and zany people, which often makes the movie feel like a synthetic substitute for real social interaction. As I said at the beginning, it’s great to see a Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast. But it’s lamentable that the cast had to be in a movie that embraces all the worst things about Hollywood.