‘Oh what a feelin’, f**k it I want a billion,” Jay-Z raps in 2013’s “Picasso Baby.” It’s the sound of an American who can scarcely believe his good fortune and is determined to wring every ounce of pleasure from it. What is life like when you can have everything? It sounds . . . delirious. “Marble floors, gold ceilings,” “twin Bugattis,” “Champagne on my breath, yes.” Why not? Jay-Z can afford it all. His house is “like the Louvre or the Tate Modern.” He’s got a yellow Basquiat in the kitchen corner: “Go ahead and lean on that s**t, Blue, you own it.”
Hip-hop isn’t just a Scrooge McDuck deep dive in the money, but that’s a big part of its appeal, and in the wealthiest country that ever was, at the wealthiest it’s ever been, that unbridled exuberance about financial success is surprisingly rare. The more refined precincts of literature, music, film, and television find being rich as embarrassing as an old-money WASP. George Clooney and the Coen Brothers surely know a lot about how wonderful it is to have access to wealth that would flabbergast Croesus, but they’ll never make a movie about it. Their dirty secret is that being rich is . . . fun.
Even thinking about other people’s wealth is inviting and inspiring, if you can relate to the people who made it to the top of the ladder. If Jay-Z, a guy who “used to cop in Harlem,” can make it all the way to “Christie’s with my missy,” fantasy can become reality. Hence the appeal of Crazy Rich Asians, a surprise summer blockbuster that’s being widely hailed as a breakthrough for “diversity” and “inclusion.” Nah. It’s not a breakthrough at all. It’s a throwback celebration of money. Like “Picasso Baby,” it’s a lesson in how to “live life colossal.”
A love story about a working-class girl from Queens whose boyfriend is an heir to a massive family fortune, Crazy Rich Asian has become a box-office phenomenon, on track to earn well over $100 million domestically. For a film that has neither stars nor special effects and isn’t a musical, that’s almost unheard-of. You’d have to go back to the Sandra Bullock–Ryan Reynolds movie The Proposal, nine years ago, to find a romcom that has done this well. Hollywood has all but given up on the genre.
What’s more, Crazy Rich Asians is no model of the form. With its sloppy script and paucity of good jokes, it’s a formulaic exercise that begins with an absurdity (that a New York woman could be dating a billionaire celebrity who is the most eligible bachelor in Asia, and not know any of this about him), forgets to put in much conflict to move the plot forward until the second half, and then simply ends with the plot’s central problem unresolved.
So, why have millions of viewers been drawn to it anyway? The spectacle of bling. The orgy of stuff. If this were a movie about working-class Asians running a business in Queens, it wouldn’t be the sensation that it is. The success of Crazy Rich Asians is off the charts because the success in Crazy Rich Asians is off the charts. It’s a luxury-lifestyle catalogue on a 40-foot screen. How many other movies can say that? There’s a joke in the movie in which, arriving at an impossibly posh and lavish family compound in Singapore, someone says, “This is like the Asian Bachelor.” It is, and that’s what sells it: Everything is amazingly, eye-poppingly beautiful and lush. Almost everyone is beautiful, fit, and stylishly clad. The bachelor party takes place on a huge freighter, in international waters, in the company of bikini models from around the world. The bachelorette party kicks off with an invitation to ransack a designer boutique, everything paid for in advance, and follows up with everyone getting a seaside massage at an immaculate tropical hotel.
There are a couple of points where the movie stops so we can gawk at a $1.2 million pair of earrings. There’s a crazy rooftop party on a skyscraper. There are uniformed servants and amazing sports cars. There’s a wedding in which the aisle is turned into a beautiful running stream before the bride walks down it. (No, I don’t know how that would work, either.) The soundtrack bubbles with Chinese cover versions of songs like “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Material Girl.” At the screening I attended the entire theater burst into applause at the sight of an engagement ring set with an emerald big enough to choke a T. Rex. Put it this way: Everyone’s so rich that an NYU economist (charmingly played by Constance Wu opposite Henry Golding as her billionaire beau) is the Cinderella figure. Compared to everyone else in the film, a character on a low-six-figure salary is a guttersnipe.
Yes, there are a few Asian-specific cultural signifiers in this movie that have gotten the columnists overly excited — “Why the mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians is so important,” a CBS News headline blared. But nobody’s paying 20 bucks for a movie ticket to watch other people play mahjong. We go to movies for escape, and Crazy Rich Asians provides it by letting viewers revel in limitless lucre guilt-free.