Crazy Rich Asians by Chinese American directory Jon M. Chu is the kind of film only an ogre, or a grim, Marxist fanatic could hate. Being an ogre — a 50-year-old white male with more hair on his back than on his head — and a grim Marxist fanatic — I’d honestly like to see everybody in the 1% loaded up into a tumbril and sent to the guillotine — I’m not the intended audience. That’s why I’m glad I saw it in the theater instead of waiting until it came on Netflix or popped up on Pirate Bay. I’ve rarely seen an audience quite so engaged by a movie as the people around me, mostly teenagers, seemed to be by Crazy Rich Asians. They laughed at all the jokes. They applauded spontaneously throughout the film. Early in the movie, when it appeared that the hero’s mother was about to get turned out into the street by the white staff of a ritzy hotel the girl sitting behind me shouted “racist.” Did I think Crazy Rich Asians was a great film? No. But who am I to argue with 300 or high school kids banished to the local movie theater by their parents hoping to enjoy the last few days of Summer before the school year begins? They loved it.
Rachel Chu, Constance Wu, is an NYU economics professor engaged to a man named Nick Young, who’s played by the Anglo Malaysian actor Henry Golding. After Young invites Chu to his best friend’s wedding back home in Singapore, and a passing woman snaps a photo of the couple with her cell phone and shoots it into social media, we learn that he’s not only a tall, charming hunk, he’s the heir to a fortune with hundreds of million dollars. You could do worse than to think of Rachel Chu as Meghan Markle and Nick Young as Prince Harry. The Youngs of Singapore are Asian royalty, and Rachel Chu, who seems to be the only person who doesn’t know, has no idea of what she’s getting into. What follows could be a paid advertising campaign for the Singapore bureau of tourism. In scene after scene highlighting the glamour and beauty of the city, we are whisked through mansion after mansion, lavish party after lavish party, ostentatious display of wealth after ostentatious display of wealth, until we finally get to meet Eleanor Sung-Young, the Young family matriarch played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Michelle Yeoh.
While Crazy Rich Asians is not bringing us into the inner sanctum of the 1% — I honestly have no idea what that really looks like —it creates the illusion that, like the middle-class Rachel Chu, we are entering a privileged world most people never see. At first glance, nobody in Nick Young’s family or extended circle of friends have ever had a care in the world, and even an ogre and a grim Marxist fanatic like myself could temporarily put aside his fantasy of being Robespierre and wonder what it would be like to have more money than you’d possibly know what to do with. Of course, the movie doesn’t end there (although it probably could). Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic drama, not an advertisement, so there must be a conflict. Eleanor Sung-Young disapproves of her would be daughter in law, a commoner, the daughter of a single mother, not fellow Asian royalty. Nick’s jealous female admirers resent his American “banana,” yellow on the outside, and white on the inside. Nick’s friends wonder exactly what she could possibly bring to their family. “Small tits,” one man sneeringly suggests. Eventually Rachel must decide whether he’s worth it, and Nick must decide whether to act like a man and defy his domineering mother for the woman he loves. I won’t give any spoilers about whether it all works out, but, honestly, you’ve probably already figured it out.
Politically Crazy Rich Asians might best be described as “culturally liberal and economically conservative.” On the positive side, the racist stereotype of Asian men as leering villains or cringing, asexual neuters is at long last put to rest. Crazy Rich Asians privileges the female gaze over the male gaze. I lost count of how many times we get to see physically beautiful Asian men in various stages of undress, but it didn’t take me long to realize the intended audience is gay men and straight women, not straight men. Constance Wu is an attractive woman who looks far too young to be an NYU economics professor —she’s actually 36 — but she’s never “objectified.” She’s the stand in for the audience, the moral center of a film that makes us think about how much we’d be willing to trade to be part of the ruling class. The problem is that in the end, we don’t have to choose. Crazy Rich Asians shamelessly eroticizes wealth. Money is sex. Sex is money. Like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Nick Young has money in his voice, and in his six pack, and in his movements, but there’s never any car crash in the Valley of Ashes. Jon M. Chu is an F. Scott Fitzgerald without the dark side. He takes us to the biggest, most lavish party Jay Gatsby ever threw at his mansion on West Egg, and leaves us there forever, dancing the night away. The rich, as Fitzgerald pointed out, are different from you and me. Yes they are, Chu responds, and isn’t it cool.