Crazy Rich Asians reminds me of that other silly rom-com — you know the one: the English-speaking film with an all-Asian cast of sexy young actors in romantic, corny, predictable situations. What’s the name again? It’s on the tip of my… oh, right there isn’t one. (OK, maybe Flower Drum Song in the early 1960s. Let’s say “non-musical” rom-com, then.)
The pre-press for this film, based on the 2013 bestselling novel, is centered around its uniqueness in the cinematic landscape in that it shows Asian people as modern, mostly Westernized, comedic, romantic, bitchy folks who aren’t anyone’s stereotype of what it means to be Chinese, or any other nationality or ethnic origin. They won’t be anyone’s stereotype! … and yet stereotypes is exactly what they are. Virtually without exception.
There’s the smart, self-sufficient working woman Rachel (Constance Wu) in love with a handsome, charming Nick (Henry Golding) who’s (a) a mama’s boy and (b) filthy rich … only she doesn’t care about money, and neither does he. (Uh-huh.) Nick’s icily protective mom (Michelle Yeoh) sets her minions — including a klatch of clucking busybodies as well as the women jealous that they couldn’t land the greatest bachelor in the world — to undermine Rachel. Nick’s own pals wonder whether she’s prepared to be the wife to his awesomeness, so everyone doubts everything they do.
Does this sound familiar? Cuz it should. It could be Monster-in-Law. Or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Or Mean Girls, Sweet Home Alabama, The Princess Diaries or virtually any film that has ever starred Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker or Drew Barrymore.
Which begs that question: If Crazy Rich Asians is just any other rom-com, only in Singapore, how significant is it really that it just happens to be Asian?
It. Is. Huge.
I still remember when I saw Another Gay Movie. The plot was about gay friends who make a pact to lose their virginity. It was predictable, banal, coarse, run, occasionally fun but mostly just gross. But I couldn’t not have been happier. Here, at last, was a “gay” film confident enough to be just as awful as American Pie, Porky’s and tons of other heteronormative sex comedies about horny teens that I had had to endure for my cinematic lifetime. True equality is not about special treatment, it’s about equal treatment: The equality to be ordinary and unambitious and bland. It succeeded in its prosaicness.
The same is true of Crazy Rich Asians. There is, essentially, nothing deeply “Asian” about it — not the names of the characters (almost all are anglicized). Not the language spoken (very little Cantonese, Tagalog or other Eastern dialects). Even much of the culture is so gaudy — too much gold, Prada and Cristal — that all you can think is, “Did 4,000 years of Chinese culture really conspire to be like Donald Trump?” But it proves the point that bougie is as bougie does. You don’t need to be a Kardashian to be trashy, just bored and have bad taste. Which is exactly the point.
Because it recreates those tropes in important ways. Asian men — who, statistically speaking, are the single least desired of sexual beings in Western culture (Asian women, by contrast, are exoticized) — are cast as both buffoons (Ken Jeong makes an unwelcome appearance in the movie, though he’s kinda funny and his role is small) and as muscled-out sex objects: When director John M. Chu lets him camera linger longingly over the naked, glistening body of Pierre Png, he’s objectifying him, to be sure. Just like Channing Tatum. (Think about: Just like Channing Tatum.)
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it begs the question of how good the film is (as opposed to how significant it is). Chu uses “The Ride of the Valkyries” for a scene involving helicopter, a visual cliche so hackneyed and uninspired Chu should be bitch-slapped for letting it get into the final cut. He sets a clothes-changing montage sequence to a cover of “Material Girl.” He makes every single person except Rachel and her best friend (Awkwafina, who deserves all the praise she can get) at times terrible, terrible people. Like, unforgivably awful. And then the film forgives them. No bueno.
But it does incorporate shards of cultural specificity, and there are some good scenes, especially with Awkwafina and Nico Santos as the gay “pink sheep” of the family. Too bad it takes us on so many detours along the way.
Here’s the thing, though: Remember when My Big Fat Greek Wedding did the same thing, and became one of the most successful films of all time? Yeah. Remember that slate of films about Greeks that followed? Of course not, because they didn’t. It was a fluke, a one-off. Crazy Rich Asians may be an important forerunner, but it only matters if it can start a trend. Asians have been romantic leads in Bollywood films for decades; there’s no reason they can’t take root in the West. But they will also have to get better if they hope to last.
Then again, Jennifer Lopez seems to be doing OK still.
— Arnold Wayne Jones