Despite its ill-advised tendency to revel in the very opulence it’s critiquing, Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians is often shrewd in probing the cross-cultural conflicts that arise in the lead-up to the obscenely extravagant wedding of one of Singapore’s most eligible bachelors, Colin Khoo (Chris Pang). At the center of the whirlwind of drama surrounding the wedding is the equally blue-blooded and filthy-rich best man, Nick Young (Henry Golding), and his sweet but tenacious girlfriend, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). But it isn’t until Nick and Rachel are shown to their first-class seats aboard their international flight that she even gets a hint of the extent of his family’s riches.
Exactly just how rich Nick’s family is only comes into focus once Rachel visits her college friend, Peik Lin (Awkwafina), in Singapore and is stunned to learn that Nick is heir apparent to the family that essentially modernized the country over a century earlier. While Crazy Rich Asians lets the family off the hook by never divulging the methods through which it amassed its fortune on foreign soil, the filmmakers mine a good deal of satirical humor from their characters’ thirst for extravagance. The pre-wedding bash that Colin’s close friend, Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang), throws on a cargo ship in international waters offers an amusing peek into the lives of those with money to burn, while Peik Lin’s father’s (Ken Jeong) warning to his youngest children to finish their dinner because there are starving children in America is a knowing nod to the rise of Asia and the changing of the global economic guard.
But at the heart of Crazy Rich Asians isn’t so much its portrait of a small community’s sickening affluence, but rather the ongoing showdown between the Chinese-American Rachel and Nick’s domineering mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of her son’s girlfriend both for her lack of a respectable family legacy and for being too driven by self-serving American ideals. Even Rachel’s success as an NYU professor does nothing to dissuade Eleanor from her objections to the young woman as a potential wife for Nick. And as the two duke it out, mostly by way of icy stare-downs and passive-aggressive verbal sparring over class and culture, the film delves into the root of Eleanor’s rationale by touching on the many differences in values and social norms between traditional Chinese families and Chinese-Americans.
While the film’s screenplay gives its secondary characters an abundance of time and room to breathe, this leads to several aimless subplots that are disengaged from the cultural specificity that elevates Crazy Rich Asians to more than just a generic rom-com. Scenes that focus on the petty vengeance of Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Amanda Ling (Jing Lusi), or those involving his cousin, Astrid Leong (Gemma Chan), and her travails with her cheating husband, Michael Teo (Pierre Png), play out in a safe and predictable manner.
But whenever Crazy Rich Asians sets its sights on Nick’s eccentric aunties or the flamboyant Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos), another of Nick’s cousins, as he teams up with Peik Lin to help Rachel cope with the hefty demands of the Young clan, the film brims with warmth, generosity, and an absurdist humor that’s tinged with the sort ethnic and regional insights that you rarely find in a Hollywood production. These sequences help to flesh out the generational and cross-cultural discord that drives the central feud between Rachel and Eleanor, revealing that the tug of war between both tradition and modernity and regionalism and globalism is one that plagues every generation.
As such, the film remains critical of Eleanor’s ruthlessness without veering into dragon-lady caricature, understanding that her issues with Rachel stem from a disconnect that’s being challenged more as Asia increasingly presents itself as a global force. The filmmakers’ ability to seamlessly explore rapidly shifting Chinese cultural norms within the context of the classic trope of a mother who’s hostile toward her son’s partner is the film’s most impressive feat. And that Crazy Rich Asians is often hilarious in making these observations will undoubtably ensure its enduring and widespread appeal.