Magazine | October 1, 2018, Issue

Guiltless Escapism

Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians (Warner Bros. )

Crazy Rich Asians is the kind of movie that reminds you that reviewing is a superfluous act. In the first few moments of the story, there is a ridiculous contrivance: We are introduced to two lovebirds, the Chinese-American/daughter of a single mother/tenured economist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding), her Chinese-by-way-of-Singapore boyfriend, who is in the process of inviting her to his native city for his best friend’s wedding. While out for dinner they are spotted by a passing Sino-American gossip, who recognizes Nick for the tycoon’s son he is and quickly spreads the word of his relationship via Chinese social media all the way across the Pacific, where the news reaches the steely Young family matriarch, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who will be Rachel’s chief obstacle in her quest for happily-ever-after.

The social-media business is not the contrivance; it’s a clever way to establish Nick’s demi-celebrity and introduce his family. What’s contrived and absurd is what follows: The realization that our girl Rachel, who did I mention is a tenured economist at NYU, lacks sufficient facility with a little thing called Google to know that her serious-enough-to-fly-with-to-Singapore boyfriend is an East Asian version of Prince Harry, with more money coming to him than the heirs of Donald Trump. Instead we get to watch her dawning shock when they get concierge service at the airport, get ushered not just into first class but a private cabin, and eventually get to Singapore itself, where she discovers that her beau is, well, not just rich but crazy rich.

As screenwriting this is rubbish, since making the heroine a dunce who doesn’t realize whom she’s dating undercuts everything that the story is trying to establish about Rachelthat she’s a super-intelligent career woman who will be able to rely on her smarts and moxie when the going gets tough and the rich Asians get snobby.

But while my critic’s brain was thinking, This is really dumb, come on, my lizard brain was thinking, Wow, look at that amazing secret better-than-first-class cabin, and Wow, now they’re eating the most amazing Singaporean street food, and Wow, can that skyscraper with the boat-thing on top of three buildings really be real, and if so when can I go to Singapore . . .

What I’m trying to say is that I could tell you everything that’s wrong with this movie, from the limpness of the leads relative to the supporting players (Yeoh, in particular, has about six times as much wattage as Wu, which is a problem since the movie is all about Wu’s character proving that she can be the matriarch’s equal) to the script that’s only a B-minus or so when it comes to memorable jokes to the missed opportunities to give us ignorant American provincials a little more sociological detail about the magnates of the Chinese expat world.

But none of those problems are going to stick in your head while the camera is ogling bejeweled socialites and their magazine-spread-ready homes, or while you’re watching the heroine go to a bachelorette party held at a resort that’s closed for the occasion just so the women can all have a crazy all-you-can-grab shopping spree and then get massages while the mean ones plot against our heroine, which is totally not cool, and meanwhile the groom’s party is being held on a container ship somewhere out in the South China Sea, and then the wedding itself is in a church that’s been turned into a forest and outfitted with some sort of water feature so that the bride can appear to walk on water down the aisle, which is totally romantic and also cost how much? Amazing . . .

Basically, Crazy Rich Asians is to romantic comedies what Black Panther was to politically themed superhero movies. It’s a chance for enlightened audiences to revel in all kinds of things that they would feel uncomfortable about appreciating in a story about old-money WASPs or blueblood Europeans . . . but that can be guiltlessly appreciated if they’re associated with minorities and the non-European world. In Black Panther those things were absolute monarchy, aristocratic lineages, and rah-rah ethno-nationalism. In Crazy Rich Asians, those things are fast cars and big diamonds and the general joy of being part of the 0.0001 percent.

Like the journey to Wakanda, the voyage to Singapore is being hailed as a breakthrough for ethnic representationthe first recent blockbuster with an all-Asian cast, etc. But really Crazy Rich Asians is a breakthrough for using representation to sell something more universalthe fantasy of privilege and of being a Cinderella ushered into the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Does that sound like a criticism? It doesn’t matter; the fantasy cannot be resisted. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to looking up vacation packages in Singapore.

In This Issue

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In Defense of the Constitutional Order

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Letters

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