I didn't learn to appreciate romantic comedies until superhero franchises drove them extinct. OK, so that's a slight exaggeration: Rom-coms still thrive on streaming services, often in series form. But they're far rarer in theaters than they were 10 years ago, and the ones that have survived the cinematic climate change tend to be hardier and more interesting than the pastel-tinged Kate Hudson/Katherine Heigl/Nancy Meyers fare of yore.
Take the new hit Crazy Rich Asians, which is the opposite of a pastel movie. The primary setting is Singapore, and every frame bursts with colors that are just as opulent and attention-grabbing as the characters' lifestyles. Director Jon M. Chu, a veteran of music videos and dance movies, has embraced all the excess that the title of Kevin Kwan's source novel promises.
If the movie is unapologetic about offering up affluence as eye candy, it's equally unapologetic about telling a Cinderella story. But it offers some twists on the rom-com formula to which viewers raised on American fare are accustomed, starting with the fact that the primary conflict isn't amorous but familial.
Constance Wu plays the spirited Rachel Chu, a New York University econ professor who has no clue that her handsome boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), is the heir to one of Singapore's richest families. Until, that is, she accompanies him on a visit home.
One encounter with Nick's regal, impeccably status-conscious mother (Michelle Yeoh), who has serious misgivings about a match with an Asian American career woman, is nearly enough to send Rachel fleeing back to New York. But, with the help of her friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina), she resolves to face the challenge. Proving herself worthy of Nick involves not just the obligatory makeover sequence, but also a climactic mah jongg match that draws on Rachel's knowledge of game theory.
The plot is heavy on wish fulfillment, and Rachel and Nick's relationship is never fleshed out to the point where we're rooting for them, as opposed to rooting for Rachel. If the movie still holds our interest, that's partly because Nick's mom isn't a mere snobbish gorgon, a prospective Monster-in-Law. Her concerns about Rachel, both class-based and cultural, are rooted in her own past struggles, and Yeoh convinces us that maintaining a dynasty isn't for the faint of heart.
While this grand dame of Hong Kong cinema supplies the drama — augmented by a soap-opera-ish subplot involving Nick's cousin (Gemma Chan) — supporting players serve up the comedy. Breakout star Awkwafina cuts through the romantic gauze with raspy-voiced, profane commentary, aided and abetted by Peik Lin's dad (Ken Jeong, broadly outrageous as ever), and Nico Santos as Nick's cousin from the "rainbow branch" of the family. I would totally watch a spin-off chronicling this trio's adventures.
This is not a movie for those who want to see the dark side of Singapore: Crazy Rich Asians is decadent and "Dynasty"-esque, from the touristic drone shots to the drooling intervals of food porn. Several of its set pieces, such as a beyond-exorbitant wedding, would fit right into a musical.
The movie has just enough substance — such as a prologue that rebukes colonialist racism — to entice us to yield to its pleasures. More importantly, it serves as a subtle reminder of how very rarely actors of Asian descent play substantial roles in American movies, let alone making up a whole ensemble cast. Judging by the talent on display here, Crazy Rich Asians could be a harbinger of more than the rom-com's rebirth.