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Crazy Rich Asians

Eleanor, Nick and Rachel
"I thought I was here to meet your family, go to your best friend's wedding, eat some good food. Instead, I feel like I'm a villain in a soap opera who's plotting to steal your family fortune."

A young man takes his girlfriend home to meet the family, and his strong-willed mother disapproves of her. It's the premise of several hundred thousand romantic comedies, heirs to a tradition stretching from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing to whatever Meg Ryan is doing this week. However, you've never seen a romantic comedy quite like this one.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an NYU economics professor who is seriously dating a fellow faculty member, Nick Young (Harry Golding), who hails from Singapore. For spring break, Nick invites Rachel to go home with him to attend his best friend's wedding and meet his family. When they get on the plane, Rachel is surprised to find she's traveling in a first-class sleeper cabin instead of coach.

"So your family is, like, rich?"
"We’re comfortable."
"That is exactly what a super-rich person would say."

Nick's family is not just rich, or even super-rich–in the words of Rachel's college roommate Goh Piek Lin (Awkwafina), they're "crazy rich," developers of some of the most expensive real estate in one of the world's most expensive cities. Piek Lin's family is not exactly poor, but they're "new money" and they look the part, dressing in flashy clothes and living in a house with deafeningly-loud décor inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles... and Donald Trump's bathroom. Nick's family is "old money," educated in the finest British schools, sporting upperclass-British given names and upperclass-British accents. As Piek Lin puts it, "They're so posh and snobby, it's snoshy!"

Rachel describes herself as "so Chinese I'm an econ professor with lactose intolerance," but when she gets to Singapore, she finds she's not nearly Chinese enough or prestigious enough for Nick's mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), the all-powerful matriarch of the clan. Eleanor is expecting Nick to move back to Singapore and settle down with a nice Chinese girl from a proper upper-class family, and run the family business. She sees Rachel as the stereotypical "ugly American," a gold-digger and a threat to the family's interests. Nick, who doesn't want to work in the family business, wants to marry Rachel because they're genuinely in love; he's willing to incur his mother's wrath to do so, and to his credit he never wavers in this resolve. Rachel doesn't want to come between Nick and his family, but doesn't know how, or even if, she can win Eleanor over. As this conflict plays out, we also get to meet Nick's best friend Colin (Chris Pang) and his fiancée Amarinta (Sonoya Mitsuzo), as well as several members of Nick's extended family. One cousin in particular, Astrid (Gemma Chan), is a large part of the story as her troubled marriage is contrasted with Nick and Rachel's situation. The characters are believable–nobody is forced to carry the idiot ball to keep the plot moving--and the story is told so that you care what happens to them.

Though it dives deeply into Singapore's Hokkien-speaking Chinese subculture, Crazy Rich Asians is ultimately built on universal themes. It's about how people relate to each other and to their families, about how good intentions can lead one to cruel acts, and the problems that arise when a child wants to marry someone the parents don't approve of or can't be comfortable with.

Quotes

"No one loves free stuff more than rich people."

"You grow up your whole lives together, you make excuses for people. 'Specially the morons.

"It's about time somebody stood up to Auntie Eleanor. But you, not me–oh God! She can't ever know I was here!"

"You haven't finished your nuggets yet, sweetie. There's a lot of children starving in America, right? I mean, take a look at her, huh. She's American, really skinny. You want to look like that?"

Piek Lin displaying her fashion sense
Also on the wedding registry

Though based on the very popular novel of the same name by Singapore native Kevin Kwan, the film departs from the book in several important respects. The portrayal of Piek Lin by rapper/comedienne/YouTube influencer (how's that for a job description?) Awkwafina is the source of a lot of that variation. In the book, she's sweet and good-natured. In the film, she's brash and brassy, with her attention-getting hair tint and, uh, unique mode of dress, a serial scene-stealer and the primary source of comic relief. Almost all of Piek Lin's dialogue–some of the best lines in the movie–was improvised by Awkwafina on the set. Credit, too, goes to Constance Wu and the other actors who matched Awkwafina's improvisation stride-for-stride, and director John Chu, who let them all run with it.

There are so many good performances that listing them all would soak up all our available bandwidth. One that stood out for me in particular was a little old lady in the aisle of an airliner, played by Susan Wong, who has only one line–but it's an awesome one.

One of the key conversations takes place during a game of Mahjong–another scene not in the book, by the way. You need not know a thing about the game to follow what happens in the scene, but if you do, there's a whole second layer of story and symbolism to be appreciated. If you're interested, there's a very detailed (and very spoiler-y) explanation of it here.

At Colin and Amarinta's wedding, the bride's entrance music is Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," sung by Kina Grannis. Kina is a crystal-voiced American singer-songwriter with a large fanbase in Asia. If you'd like to hear more by her, I highly recommend her cover of the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris."

The soundtrack also includes a number of Chinese pop standards, a delightful Chinese language version of "Money (That's What I Want)" over the opening titles, and a Coldplay cover that's a rather interesting story all by itself.

There's a very cool sequence early on showing a gossip columnist's photo of Nick and Rachel going viral.

I really have only one complaint about the film, and that's the 5-minute cold open, set in London in 1996. A young Eleanor and her children walk into a high-end hotel on a rainy night, only to be turned away by the desk clerks even though they have reservations. I think it's supposed to be our introduction to the character of Eleanor, but it doesn't tell us anything about her we couldn't glean from the first scene she appears in after the titles, the event is never mentioned by anyone in the film, and I find it hard to believe that the staff of a high-end British hotel in London would conduct business like they were in the Deep South at the height of Jim Crow. You could cut the scene completely and the film wouldn't lose anything. That five minutes would have been better spent on more improvisation from Awkwafina.

Conclusion

This is not a typical romantic comedy. It transcends the genre, telling a story that's subtle and intelligent, with real heart and emotion, finding its humor in the quirks and foibles common throughout the human race. 395 out of 400 million Singapore dollars.

Baby M may be crazy, but he has never been rich.

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