Crazy Rich Asians

The success of Crazy Rich Asians reminds me of an old satirical graphic posted in The Onion back in 1999: When listing popular baby names of the time, The Onion cited Caitlin, Brianna, Ashleigh, and Madison for white girls and Sue, Lisa, Michelle, and Amy for Asian girls. The joke was that what were once the "whitest" names now belonged to Asian Americans. And so it follows that Crazy Rich Asians is the most successful romantic comedy in years, reviving the genre that once epitomized "white" cinema.

Of course I am joining the chorus of diversity-at-last, this being the first Hollywood movie with a majority Chinese/Chinese-American cast since 1993's The Joy Luck Club, and possibly only the third since 1961's Flower Drum Song. (When discussing Asian stories in general, I'll remind readers that Memoirs of a Geisha and Letters from Iwo Jima were also studio pictures.) Its very existence is a cause for celebration.

Eventually, though, we have to set aside our jubilation and ask ourselves if the movie itself is any good. In short, it is, but... well, read on.

The plot concerns one Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who is introduced as a brilliant economics professor at NYU. She's been seeing Nick Young (Henry Golding), a charming and handsome Singaporean, for a year. When Nick invites Rachel to attend his friend's wedding back home, she is flabbergasted to discover, upon entering their first class cabin on the airplane over, that Nick is extremely, obscenely rich.

The rest of the plot can be summed up as follows: Nick's mother (Michelle Yeoh) disapproves of the union because... Rachel is American-born Chinese. Wow. Meanwhile, although various family members have their own squabbles, we are mostly just treated to one spectacle after another of rich people blowing vast amounts of cash on lavish parties, and having the time of their lives.

Yes, the plot is formulaic, and the leads are far less interesting than the supporting players. You expect that from romantic comedies. But what ultimately bothered me about Crazy Rich Asians was how lazy it was about Rachel's middle-class character (who, in Kevin Kwan's original novel, hailed from Cupertino, my own hometown) and her feelings about all that wealth. Rachel being an economics professor seems only to be shorthand for "she's not only cute, she's smart". In fact she is not remotely academic – she doesn't spend a second worrying about her research or getting published, and has absolutely no moral qualms about being involved with a billionaire real estate heir at a time of widening income disparity. Not to mention that this supposedly intelligent woman can date a Singaporean man with designer clothes and a posh Oxford accent for a full year, yet remain totally clueless about his powerful family or his financial background.

You might say, Look, this is a Cinderella story, a fairy tale romance. This is no place for social commentary. But fairy tales take place long ago in imaginary lands. Crazy Rich Asians takes place in a very real 2018 Singapore. Is it too much to ask that Rachel be wiser and more conflicted about what she's getting into – not because of Nick's narrow-minded mother, but because of her own beliefs? If Rachel is just fine with cozying up to billionaires, then at least give her a more innocuous, less politically-loaded job than economics professor, for God's sake.

Anyway, all those issues bubbled up only after the movie was over. The two hours before that were spent breezily enough. It's a cute date movie, and Vanja Cernjul's cinematography is lovely. And I can't close without giving kudos to comedian/rapper Awkwafina, who steals every scene she's in.