There’s a joke that I’m going to spoil from Crazy Rich Asians, but it is neither the best nor only joke in Crazy Rich Asians, so I hope you don’t mind. Shortly after Rachel (Constance Wu) arrives in Singapore to meet her boyfriend Nick’s outrageously wealthy family, she makes a pit stop at the family home of an old college friend Peik Lin (Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina). Peik Lin’s house is a mere amuse-bouche for the over-the-top opulence that still awaits us, a gilded, nouveau riche Trumpian nightmare. Over an impressive lunch spread, Peik Lin’s dad (Ken Jeong) admonishes her little sisters for not finishing their chicken nuggets. “There are children starving in America!” he reminds them.
The line elicited shocked shrieks of laughter from the crowd I saw it with. It’s the kind of caustic, potentially subversive punch line that Crazy Rich Asians at its best should thrive on — one that immediately recontextualizes every white mom’s use of that line about starving children in third-world countries as the kind of malevolent obliviousness it always has been. But it also makes it hard to deny that the milieu we’ll be spending the next hour and a half with is equally malevolently oblivious. Nonetheless, Crazy Rich Asians bullishly insists on its Billionaires Ever After endgame, even as it makes every argument against it in the process.
I’ll admit I’ve been cautious in my anticipation for Crazy Rich Asians, and my apprehension mostly has to do with the second of its three defining adjectives. For those just keeping track of numbers, the mere existence and wide release of Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling book is a “win” for mainstream representation for actors of Asian descent. But like so much subject matter that’s seen an uphill battle in getting its time in the mainstream limelight — BDSM sex, for instance — it’s clear nobody had faith in a fluffy rom-com about the lives and loves of Asian people going down smoothly without a heaping spoonful of affluence porn. (I tend to think this extends to superheroes too, who were by and large too nerdy and embarrassing before a certain film about an incredibly wealthy arms dealer came out.)
Luckily, Crazy Rich Asians is, at its heart, a fish-out-of-water story, and it has a lot more going for it than its literal money shots. Nick brings Rachel back to Singapore with him ostensibly for his best friend’s wedding, but in the process she’s introduced to the sprawling titular web of aristocrats and celebrities, most crucially Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). In their first deftly directed and body-language-driven scene together, Eleanor sizes up Rachel with one icy glance. Thus Rachel’s battle to prove herself as worthy of Nick’s love begins, taking place over several jam-packed days of helicopter trips, private-island bachelorette parties, and barge raves. At one point, Paik Lin likens Rachel’s experience to the “Asian Bachelor,” and she’s not wrong. Aside from an early, mouthwatering trip to a night market (warning: do not come to Crazy Rich Asians on an empty stomach), the Singapore Nick’s circle inhabits is in a stratosphere of its own.
As Rachel, a Chinese-American economics professor and the child of a working-class immigrant mom (Kheng Hua Tan), Wu is equal parts skeptic and naïf, and her awareness of how ridiculous everything around her is straight out of the Dakota Johnson School of Relatability. She and Awkwafina — used to stellar effect here, more or less stealing the film — are a fine pair of outsiders making the rounds at a party in Nick’s childhood home; Rachel is bemused and terrified while Paik Lin gawks and takes selfies. It hardly matters that Nick, played by affable Ken doll Henry Golding, doesn’t seem to have much of a personality aside from an occasionally surfacing conscience and an ability to wear a suit well. The film is less about their romance and more about the breadth of experience between old money in the old country and those who’ve scraped by for a piece of the American dream and been forever changed by it. The stakes of Rachel and Nick weathering the Crazy Rich storm and ending up together is more about reconciling those experiences than about True Love.
That said, Crazy Rich Asians, aided heavily by Wu’s self-possessed performance, does an awful lot to convince you that an unhappy ending might be the right thing for everyone. Rachel and Eleanor’s battle comes to a head over a game of mah jongg, and it’s one of the more impressive and smart rom-com climaxes I’ve seen, as full-hearted as it is smart. Nick, tellingly, doesn’t even need to be in the room. So when the film slips back into its bedazzled worship of wealth — which up until then has been presented with a slightly cockeyed comic bent — it’s a (fully expected and predictable) letdown. Crazy Rich Asians is packed with oversize characters (and one too many pointless side plots), but it’s really a love triangle about moms. Once that’s made all too clear, it’s hard to get too excited about another opulent shindig, but Chu sends us out with one anyway, just making sure that we get several glasses of bubbly to wash down all that immigrant talk.