Crazy Rich Asians: Cosmetic Innovation

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

* ½ (out of 4)

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Like the various rich characters it portrays, Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (henceforth Crazy) has proved enviably successful. After obtaining an impressive 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it raked in $34 million over its opening weekend, thereby kickstarting an as-yet unbroken two-week streak at the top of the domestic box office. More significantly, as the first major Hollywood production to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club (1993), Crazy has also been praised for its inclusivity. To quote one Asian-American writer, the film is “a rare example of Asian Americans taking the reins to tell a story completely from our own perspective.”

To be sure, there are good reasons why Crazy has been getting so much acclaim. For instance, its story offers an effective refutation of the stereotyped idea that “all Asians are alike.” On the surface, the two protagonists, a woman named Rachel (Constance Wu) and her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding), are both fairly successful Asian professors. Yet Rachel is an “ABC” (American-born Chinese) who grew up with a single immigrant mom. Conversely, Nick turns out to be a member of the Young family, namely Singapore’s most established blue-blooded dynasty. Because of this difference, when the two of them visit Nick’s family, Rachel feels like – and is treated as – a coarse, “unworthy” plebeian, while people greet Nick as though he were an heir coming home to claim his throne. As illustrated by Rachel and Nick’s diverging arcs, the “Asian community” is anything but monolithic, and Crazy ably illustrates the varied social, economic, and cultural backgrounds that can fit under that deceptively simple label.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Look past its depiction of an oft-misrepresented demographic, however, and the problems in Crazy quickly become apparent. To begin with, the film’s underlying narrative is hardly the epitome of creativity. Love stories are defined by what keeps the would-be lovers apart, be it a sinking ship (Titanic), a longstanding gang rivalry (West Side Story), or a physical defect (City Lights). In Crazy, unfortunately, the obstacle turns out to be depressingly familiar: an intransigent in-law (played by Michelle Yeoh). Additionally, most of the important characters conform to archetypes – the omnipotent, Prince Charming-esque boyfriend; the in-over-her-head, Cinderella-esque damsel; the bubbly, blunt, and smart-talking sidekick – that even a newcomer to the rom-com genre will find rather trite.

Besides relying too heavily on clichés, Crazy also suffers from a series of incongruities between its body and conclusion. For much of the film, on the one hand, Chu endeavors to show us the hidden “dark side” of Nick’s family. Their lifestyle is undeniably luxurious, to be sure, and there’s something inherently valuable about the fact that Nick can live alongside several generations of kin. Yet as we come to see, the glamor of Nick’s world often borders on materialist excess – and it also belies a nepotistic, creepingly sexist worldview that values the preservation of legacy over hard work and individualistic merit. In a climactic scene that serves as a culmination of these criticisms, Rachel informs Nick’s mom that she’s ending her relationship with Nick, thereby delivering an implicit rebuke to the Youngs and their empty, stifling brand of material wealth.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

In the end, however, everything Chu does in the body of Crazy is effectively nullified by the film’s very last sequence, which immediately follows the “end relationship” scene described above. During said sequence, Nick’s mom abruptly consents to Rachel and Nick’s marriage, Rachel accepts a last-minute proposal from Nick, and the two of them celebrate at an impromptu engagement party. In the span of just a couple minutes of movie time, in short, the Youngs and Rachel go from being completely at odds to acting as though nothing could possibly come between them. Aside from shamelessly, clumsily catering to our supposed preference for “happy endings,” this total change in relations occurs too suddenly to be plausible. Worse, Rachel and Nick’s engagement party turns out to be a rooftop shindig that includes an extravagant fireworks display – a wholehearted embrace of the kind of material glamor that Chu previously characterized as alluring but silently oppressive.

Actually, when it comes down to it, that fireworks display perfectly illustrates Crazy’s most glaring defect. Even as Chu suggests that the Youngs’ lifestyle is nepotistic and soul-sucking, he exploits our instinctive attraction to such a lifestyle to boost the film’s overall appeal. Put differently, much of Crazy consists of prolonged, “This is how rich people live” sequences that make use of eye-poppingly lavish set designs. You might say that these sequences merely help represent the idea that material glamor can blind you to less tangible failings. But as indicated by the conclusion’s inclusion of fireworks, Chu knows that many of us secretly enjoy watching these opulent, Keeping Up with the Kardashians-esque sequences – and his critiques of aristocracy and materialism notwithstanding, he’s not above playing on that predilection of ours if it’ll get us to like the film more. In his depiction of the Young family’s elite world, then, Chu alternates between promotion and denigration at his convenience, a self-serving approach that’s also downright hypocritical.

Crazy is the latest in a series of recent studio productions (e.g. Black Panther, Wonder Woman) that have received attention and praise for their efforts at inclusion. While the movie industry’s stabs at diversity certainly should be commended, that doesn’t mean other factors – namely, narrative quality, intellectual consistency, and originality – matter less. If Crazy is remembered at all, it’ll be for its cultural significance, not for its (nonexistent) artistic merits. You can’t help but wish Hollywood had chosen better, more substantial material for its first big foray into Asian culture.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

***

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina

Running Time: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for some suggestive content and language.”

Produced by: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, John Penotti

Written by: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim. Based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel.

Directed by: Jon M. Chu