Busy days call for fast, spontaneous writing. I have an hour, so here’s some quick thinking about Crazy Rich Asians…


What I knew going in:

This is an important big-screen event for American moviegoers.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan. And it’s inspired a range of positive reviews, from euphoric raves calling it “fun, funny, gorgeous, and swoon-worthy” and “a joyous, eye-popping, dramatic spectacle,” to begrudgingly positive assessments that it is both “refreshingly unfamiliar” and “deeply formulaic.”

And it stands out among 2018 big-screen releases in the U.S. for one very good reason: It’s been 25 years since the last big-American-movie-studio production of an English-language movie featuring an all-Asian cast. That was The Joy Luck Club, which was delightful, and which should have been (but, alas, wasn’t) the first of many such productions. (More about this later in the review.)


Nick and Rachel, the impossibly adorable couple at the center of trouble we might call a “Wealth Storm.”

What it’s about:

A girl loves a boy, so money shouldn’t matter… right?

Wrong — that is, if you ask the boy’s rich mother who has wealth-and-family traditions to uphold.

If you don’t already know the premise, well, it’s simple: Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at NYU, is about to learn that the term Chinese-American is less about being Chinese than she thought.

When she travels with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) back to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding, she’ll meet his family and discover (how did she not already know?) that he is the Prince Charming of one of China’s wealthiest and most prestigious families. His mother and grandmother, the Young family’s matriarch, are devoted to tradition and wealth. And even though she’s a distinguished academic, she falls far short of “marriage material” in the eyes of Nick’s mother.

If this sounds like a Cinderella story, that’s because it is: It’s built on that familiar fairy-tale scaffold, right down to the moment where she runs away at midnight and her prince has to pursue her. Chu doesn’t hide that fact; he celebrates it throughout.


Constance Wu plays Rachel, who is a Cinderella of sorts in Crazy Rich Asians.


What I admire about it:

The cast, particularly Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh.

In the lead role of a crowded movie, in which everybody seems to be competing to give the performance that everybody heads home talking about, Constance Wu is perfect. She convinces us right away that Rachel is not only pretty but also genuine, thoughtful, and intelligent. In other words, she’s not the genre standard of the easily confused, easily duped, easily shaken damsel-in-distress who needs a romantic rescue. Surrounded by examples of glamour-standard beauty, Rachel outshines everyone by demonstrating integrity and conscience, by serving as a calm at the center of the movie’s sensory-overload storm. She seems three-dimensionally human, a character of nuance and thoughtfulness, and I wanted to see her escape the flamboyance of the film so that we could enjoy her company better. I would have happily followed her anywhere.

The great Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young: She has great expectations for her son Nick, but does she have a heart?

And then there’s Michelle Yeoh. She seems like she might be reflecting on other, better roles she’s played as she wanders through the film, a rare and regal talent caught up in a carnival of Chinese celebrities. Even though she’s the “wicked queen” role in this fairy tale, one that could so easily be overplayed and one-dimensional, she makes Eleanor Young a contemplative, troubled soul burdened by a difficult pas. She doesn’t need a dramatic redemption arc so much as she needs time to navigate a storm of conflicting emotions and influences in order to arrive at a moment of clarity. I suspect that sequels are not likely to focus on Eleanor, but I kind of wish they would.


Rachel meets the Matriarch, Ah Ma, and wonders if she can measure up to the family’s impossible standards.

What gets emphasized in everything I read about this movie:


And rightly so. The more I’ve explored the world of cinema, the more frustrated I’ve become by how little of the world’s most glorious cinema goes overlooked by American audiences merely because they’re conditioned to prefer movies about Caucasians.

As I walk around any neighborhood in my city, and when I teach classes of American undergraduates, I see a dazzling diversity of ethnicities and cultures. But when I join large crowds at popular movies, I generally see the screen dominated by white folks who occasionally have a token Diversity Friend. It’s easy to see how so many rural Americans who prefer a white-centric neighborhood live under the illusion that America is a white nation only lightly seasoned with Other Kinds of People. It’s time we started seeing more depictions of the rest of the world, and the cultures in which our neighbors have history, families, and foundations.

Will Crazy Rich Asians inspire more of this kind of thing? Not because it’s the right thing to do, no. But if it makes a lot of money, yes. And if the opening weekend numbers are any indication, I think we’ll be seeing more movies that feature Asian Americans — including, I suspect, sequels. (Kwan has written two follow-ups to the novel.)

Whatever works: We need a big screen that acquaints us with a larger, more diverse world, so that we can discover common ground with — and care for — our neighbors of all nationalities, colors, and cultures. I’d love to see more more movies set in Singapore — and other locations that are as foreign to most Americans as Mars — that unite American audiences.


You may suffer Wedding Envy when you see the blockbuster ceremony in Crazy Rich Asians.

What the movie actually looks, smells, and sounds like:

A simple rom-com cupcake soaking in a bathtub of money sauce.


What the story thinks it is about:

Money is exciting, sure, but it will mess up your life, Cinderella. Choose true love over money if you want to live right.


What almost everybody was talking about as I got caught in the slow-moving crowd traffic to the exit:

Man, money is awesome.

Henry Golding plays Nick Young, the Prince Charming of one of China’s wealthy “royal families.” But he sure looks like he’s auditioning to play James Bond.

For a film that wants us to admire its Prince Charming for his seeming immunity to the wealth-focused priorities of his family, the majority of the screen time feels wildly disingenuous. I’m drawn back to the question that I find most interesting to pose to any movie: What does this movie love? I agree with Filmspotting‘s Josh Larsen, that Crazy Rich Asians seems to be “mostly a celebration of conspicuous consumption.”

Based on what I’ve seen so far this year, this is the best big-screen example of a frustratingly familiar cognitive dissonance: It’s a rare thing to see a movie that practices what it preaches. The relationship between what you say you believe in and what you demonstrate by your decision-making will prove to others whether or not you are a person of integrity. Similarly, what a movie seems to mean through its narrative and what it really means by its visual preoccupations are often two different things.

Crazy Rich Asians is a three-ring circus of excessive spending. The camera ogles over the dresses, the jewelry, the houses, the cars, the feasts — and not with any interest in particularity that might give us an appreciation of any one particular exhibit, but rather with a determination to render us helpless by sheer relentlessness.


Note: Rachel is the Cinderella of the movie. She’s the Chinese-American poor girl from the cellar being drawn into a Chinese Prince Charming’s lavish world of the rich and powerful. Her character is a lowly economics professor who teaches at NYU. Do you know what the base salary is for an economics professor at NYU? $215K a year. That’s this movie’s idea of The Poor Girl who audiences will find relatable.


Oh, yeah… did I like it? It was a pleasant, air-conditioned escape from the health-advisory air pollution choking Seattle right now.

And, again, it gives me hope for a richer, more diverse American cinema.

Having said that, no, I don’t think there’s enough here to make it a must-have for the home library. I recommend it as an amusing entertainment for a Friday night with friends. Like an over-decorated cake, it’s a sensationalized sweet treat and little more. And cakes aren’t really my thing.