Crazy Rich Asians is just about the phoniest movie you’ll see all summer, but that’s by no means an unintentional effect. The movie opens with the giant hotel lobby setting, swanky music, and block lettering text of an Old Hollywood comedy – promising all the laughs, romance, and lavish imagery you’d expect from that traditionalist fare. The main update to the formalist Hollywood spectacle offered in Crazy Rich Asians is the one indicated by its title. This is a type of film usually populated by and targeted at white people reclaimed for a more historically underserved demographic. While the romantic comedy and wealth porn pleasures offered by the film are generic to the point of pastiche, its Asian & Asian-American cultural context anchor them to a specificity & a social politics POV that distinguish it from the phony Hollywood fare we’re most used to seeing on its scale. It’s damning to the reputation of mainstream filmmaking to consider that this well-behaved, phony romance spectacle is a subversive work merely for casting non-white leads, but that’s how representation-starved most POC audiences are on the pop culture landscape. Crazy Rich Asians is both a cookie-cutter Hollywood romance fantasy we’ve seen plenty times before, and paradoxically a political breakthrough for a cultural dinosaur that’s stubborn to change with the times.
The romcom A-plot pretty much writes itself. An NYU economics professor falls for a hunky bachelor who describes his family as “comfortable,” but is secretly one of the wealthiest lines of unofficial royalty on Earth. The “What if you accidentally married a prince?” fantasy offered in the film only takes on a specificity & a subversion when adapted to its cultural setting. Here, an Asian-American academic with a poor immigrant mother is dropped into a fish-out-of-water fantasy where she meets her secretly-wealthy beau’s absurdly monied family in the most extravagant corners of Singapore. Her culture clash of being an Asian-American woman in an alienating Asian environment is best exemplified in her icy relationship with her boyfriend’s mother, who subscribes to traditionalist divisions of class & culture that make her an unworthy candidate to marry into the family. The wedding preparation drama, makeover montages, and social power struggles that result from that conflict are all genre-faithful romcom material, but the specificity of their circumstances are consistently distinct & defiantly foreign. It’s no surprise, then, that Crazy Rich Asians’s best strengths lurk in the details outside its main romance plot.
Since Crazy Rich Asians is largely faithful to the familiar payoffs of Old Hollywood spectacle & the romcom genre, its more distinguishing details are hiding in the periphery. The wealth porn on display in Singapore’s more extravagant settings play almost like a travel ad, but that same luscious photography being applied to street food & homemade dumplings is a more rarified, gorgeous wonder. The central conflict established in the main romance is familiar to the genre, but the comedic sensibilities of weirdo side characters played by Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Nico Santos are an anarchic presence that transform that genre formula into a new, exciting beast. You just have to be all-in on the typical payoffs of romcom & wealth porn indulgences to fully appreciate those deviances; this is a fun, beautiful film, but it’s one that’s aimed directly at wide, mainstream audiences. Culture-clash drama between Asian & Asian-American people can be found in select small-budget indie films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; what’s significant about Crazy Rich Asians is that it balloons that perspective to a massive, big budget, Old Hollywood scale. If you’re more likely to watch an escapist fairy tale that’s unashamed of reliving Old Hollywood phoniness than a small-scale indie drama aimed at artsy fartsy types, the cultural specificity of Crazy Rich Asians is a revelation. Old Hollywood romantic spectacle has been a traditionally all-white affair, so it’s wonderful to see that hegemony broken up by something so unashamedly fun & beautiful, even if narratively generic.