Many of us still use the term “Third World” on a regular basis to refer to developing countries, and the phrase “First World problems” when we catch ourselves on the downslope toward self-pity. But this method of slicing and dicing our planet’s governmental units is fast becoming obsolete – and not only because what used to be the “Second World,” the Soviet bloc, has more or less collapsed, or at least morphed into something different and more slippery. There are places long classified as part of the Third World that now have more vigorous economies than much of the so-called First World.
One of those is the sovereign city/state of Singapore. Though it’s situated at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, nearly three-quarters of its population is Chinese, including most of its wealthiest citizens. Technologically advanced, culturally sophisticated and flowing with cash from manufacturing, shipping and real estate, this is the social milieu explored in novelist Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy and in Jon M. Chu’s new movie based upon the saga.
As wonderful as it may be to see a lushly budgeted Hollywood feature come out that boasts an all-Asian cast for the first time in 25 years (since The Joy Luck Club in 1993), full of characters who don’t fit tired “exotic/sinister Oriental” or “comical nerdy overachiever” or “kung fu avenger” tropes, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t qualify as any sort of groundbreaking vehicle of social realism. Its characters’ conflicts can pretty much all be classified as First World problems. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with having a movie like this one be about people of East Asian extraction, but it’s an otherwise-unremarkable rom/com that seems derived in equal parts from Cinderella, Dallas, La La Land and Bollywood musicals.
The heroine, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), daughter of an immigrant single mom who’s the only person in the story who can’t be called affluent, teaches Economics (specializing, significantly to the plot, in Game Theory) at NYU. When we meet Rachel she is already involved in a fairytale romance with Mr. Perfect, an impossibly handsome and nice fellow professor named Nick Young (Henry Golding). Somehow, despite Nick’s telltale prep-school English accent, Rachel hasn’t sussed that he’s the scion of one of Singapore’s wealthiest Chinese families. When Nick proposes that she come with him to his best friend’s wedding, and also meet his kinfolk, Rachel finds herself pitted against a lot of very judgmental people, including his Dragon Lady mother, Eleanor (a magnificently icy Michelle Yeoh) and a gaggle of jealous young female rivals, every one of them filthy rich.
Fortunately, Rachel is tough and resourceful. One of those resources is her loyal and sarcastic best friend from college, Peik Lin, who is living back with her own tackily nouveau-riche family in Singapore. Comic actor Ken Jeong gets a sprightly turn as Peik Lin’s dorky dad, and rapper Awkwafina – lately impressive as the genius pickpocket Constance in Ocean’s 8 – steals every scene she’s in as Peik Lin.
But most of the humor in Crazy Rich Asians is supplied by scenes of over-the-top opulence among the bored super-rich that sometimes rival The Wolf of Wall Street for wasteful decadence. Visually, this story provides abundant opportunity for the director to explore places in the Venn diagram where gorgeousness and cheesiness overlap, at parties that look to have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley’s Singaporean cousin. Fans of fashion porn, food porn and travel porn will all find something to delight them here (as will admirers of well-muscled unclothed male torsos).
The family drama that drives the narrative comes to life primarily in the scenes where Rachel and Eleanor face off, culminating in a tense, symbolically high-stakes game of mah jongg. There are some fine performances here. But for most of its length, Crazy Rich Asians is an exercise in eye candy. As was once a proverbial observation about Chinese food (as manifested in America), you may find that it leaves you hungry again an hour later. If you’re a person of Asian extraction tired of waiting for better representation onscreen, you may still want to stand up and cheer. May this be only the beginning of a new wave.