Gorgeous visuals, glitz galore—the sets in Crazy Rich Asians look so impossibly lavish and grand that you wonder what team of artists created them. But the locations are real. For at least some percentage of Singapore’s population (we’re never given a clue as to what percentage that might be) their lives feel like a super expensive episode of Sex in the City.
Crazy Rich Asians is as much an environment as it is a romantic comedy. I believe that if the film was presented in a language you do not speak, it would be just as enjoyable. The movie takes you away, and much of the trip is a pleasurable experience, with dazzling visuals, a bright score coupled with insanely catchy pop tunes, and a charismatic cast.
This film has generally gotten very good reviews and batshit crazy word of mouth. But this modern take on Chinese Cinderella is built on cliches. Billionaire Prince Charming (Henry Golding) and the American dynamo who enchants him (Constance Wu) are surrounded by standard issue sitcom characters flinging one-liners in all directions like confetti at a mega soiree.
The bubbly girls and arrogant boys—gaggles of both sexes—look like products of a Ken and Barbie figurine factory. We have the stock vengeful, vile, villainous, jilted lover. There’s the lone Anglo character; a nasty pompous authority figure who considers himself a sophisticate, before he’s unceremoniously put in his place. We get a wacky aunt with Auntie Mame antics and plenty of bite when she feels challenged. Is there a noble, good-humored salt-of-the-earth mother? Of course there is. How about a snarky, conniving bitch goddess mother? You betcha.
The issue is that it’s not just the characters that are cliches, but also the way they’re utilized. They’re dropped in at the perfect points to maximize the reactions from the lonely hearts the filmmakers surely knew would make up the vast majority of their audience.
Is the story starting to get a little sad? Cue one of the characters played by comedians Ken Jeong or Awkwafina. We know those actors are funny. We love them. So this scene must be hysterical. Female parts beginning to feel a bit wishy-washy? How ‘bout an out-of-nowhere verbal beatdown the supermodel gives her philandering, but not altogether unsympathetic— their earlier argument about personal values is a movie highlight—ex-Marine husband? Oh No She Dit-unt! Steely Cinderella turning into a victim? Can we get an eloquent soliloquy on the nobility of the working class to convince the irrational mother to abandon 5,000 years of her heritage for the sake of a fairy-tale ending? Done! You Go Girl!
Mind you there’s a reason cliches become cliches—they generally work. For instance, consider Hoosiers (yes, I’m actually going to compare Hoosiers and Crazy Rich Asians). The classic about basketball, character, and redemption is made from dollops of trite dialogue, imagery and situations. But the spot-on cast, along with artists in front and behind the cameras, are so talented and dedicated to the project that they create a film that transcends its humble beginnings.
But I can’t help but think that the long list of cliches in Crazy Rich Asians have been justified with “But isn’t it great that the entire cast and production crew are Asians?”
If Prince Charming and Cinderella were white and the setting was San Francisco would this movie have even been made, yet again? If the patrician mother had been a Jewish matriarch determined to sabotage the relationship between her baby and the shiksa would critics be rolling their eyes? If the crazy uncle had been Greek would audiences be saying “Oh yeah, I remember him from . . . ?” Couldn’t even one of the characterizations have turned out to be a surprise rather than just exactly what we’re expecting?
Okay. I just spent 500 words trashing this film and it’s really not as bad as all that. Go back to the beginning of this essay. Crazy Rich Asians is as much an environment as it is a romantic comedy. The setting is absolutely gorgeous and a world we’ve not seen before. The characters are indisputably charismatic. The soundtrack, a rollicking combination of Chinese pop-songs and American standards sung in Chinese, is great fun.
I just wish the filmmakers had invested as much imagination in the storyline as they did in the production. There are more creative uses for postcards than sitting them in a postcard rack.