Crazy Rich Asians movie review: a Golden Age of Hollywood romance with an overdue fresh twist

MaryAnn’s quick take: An opulent, juicy, splendidly silly, tears-of-joy spectacle reminiscent of the escapist fluff of 1930s Hollywood... yet also a romantic fantasy that a progressive, feminist gal can actually feel good about.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women, and for more diverse stories
I’m “biast” (con): generally not a fan of romantic comedy
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I can’t believe it’s taken Hollywood so long to make a movie like this one again!

I’m talking, of course, about opulent, juicy, splendidly silly, tears-of-joy spectacles. Like the ones that got everyone through the Great Depression, all posh people in ballgowns and tuxedoes dripping diamonds, guzzling champagne, and falling madly in love while dancing. (There may have also been Marx Brothers.) You know, decadent distractions from hard times in a troubled world that may or may not be descending in fascism and foreboding even harsher times to come. We’ve been desperate for such happy, escapist fluff for a long time now. Maybe we can’t afford to get that weird lump checked out because paying for the health-insurance premiums means there’s nothing left for the copay and deductible. Maybe we’ve put off buying a house and having kids because we’re drowning in college-loan debt. But hey, we can forget it all for a couple of hours at the movies. Or we could if we had some movies about smart, stylish, beautiful people in love and partying like money means nothing to them, because money means nothing to them.

They could have just called it Crazy Gorgeous Asians, amirite?
They could have just called it Crazy Gorgeous Asians, amirite?

And now we do with Crazy Rich Asians. Sure, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan may be ridiculously physically attractive human beings, but have you seen how their characters in this movie never have to stop and think for a minute about which credit card is least likely to get declined? So hot.

(Crazy Rich Asians is, you may have heard, also the first Hollywood film in a quarter of a century — since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club — to feature a predominantly Asian cast. That’s just enragingly blinkered and short-sighted, and perfectly emblematic of the shocking dearth of imagination in the supposed “dream factory” of the studios. Do better, The Movies. You’re embarrassing yourself.)

Anyway, when her boyfriend of the past year takes her home for a friend’s wedding, New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu: Torchwood, Sound of My Voice) discovers that Nick Young (newcomer* Golding) is in fact the Prince William — “more like Harry,” he demurs modestly — of Singapore. His family is old money in a new-money town, the real-estate developers who transformed the island city-state into the playground for the rich and fabulous it is now. And we will get the grand tour of it along with Rachel as she navigates both this new knowledge about her beloved and his large and mostly very conservative family, including Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Morgan), who has been expecting Nick to come back from his sojourn in America ready to take over the family business, and most certainly not with a working-class colonial tagalong, either.

Grandma (Lisa Lu) and Astrid: the badass ladies of the Young family.
Grandma (Lisa Lu) and Astrid: the badass ladies of the Young family.

It’s all almost exactly like Fifty Shades of Grey except that Nick isn’t a sociopath and Rachel isn’t an innocent naif: she’s a brilliant NYU professor of economics, an actual adult doing important and prestigious work who doesn’t need Nick’s money or help in her career. Also her career doesn’t define her or limit her, and it hasn’t messed up her life, as Hollywood so often seems to think a career does to a woman. More rom-com heroines like Rachel, please.

This is a romantic fantasy that a progressive, feminist gal can actually feel good about. Including also because:

1) It’s not stupid artificial nonsense that causes conflict between the couple but variations on authentic relationship roadblocks, like family expectations and differing life paths.

2) There’s a whole subplot about the awesome power of single mothers like Rachel’s mom, Kerry (Kheng Hua Tan).

3) Nick is shown to have warm and solid relationships with women that aren’t romantic ones, as with his cousin Astrid (Chan: “Revolting Rhymes”, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who is terrific and just the bestest new pal for Rachel. *sigh*

4) There are so many different kinds of women here, most entertainingly Rachel’s old college roommate, Peik (a hilarious Awkwafina: Ocean’s Eight, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), who has sass and delight to spare for the unexpected rabbit hole of luxury that Rachel has fallen into.

I want Peik as my wingwoman. And I also want those slice-o’-citrus throw pillows.
I want Peik as my wingwoman. And I also want those slice-o’-citrus throw pillows.

5) Female-gazing! Director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2, Jem and the Holograms) may be a dude — and he doesn’t seem to be gay (he’s married to a woman, at least) — but he knows how to deliver some hot shirtless-guy action (even if it must remain disappointingly PG-friendly). More of the straight male directors who dominate Hollywood need to learn about this.

Did I mention Crazy Rich Asians is funny? There’s gentle wit about dealing with difficult family members, and sly snark about gossip and grapevines, and just a little bit of cattiness about vapid socialites. Did I mention the food porn? Oh my god you will want dumplings immediately after leaving the cinema. (Multiplexes could boost their revenues temporarily by opening noodle concession stands for this movie.) “Are we in a fairy tale?” someone marvels here. Yes, yes we are. A movie this all-around luscious is a dream and a wonder.

*Golding is new to the silver screen, but I used to spend Sunday mornings with him in exotic places when he hosted ‘The Travel Show’ on the BBC’s all-news channel. Shouldn’t have let him get away…

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