Saturday, April 20, 2019

Was Scarlett Johansson Cast?

Film: Crazy Rich Asians
Format: Various media on rockin’ flatscreen.

My viewing of Crazy Rich Asians took a week. It’s not the fault of the movie itself. Sue and I watched about half of it a week ago, but she started to fall asleep, and it took us a week to both have the opportunity to finish it up. This is a movie I’d heard a great deal about, so I was interested to see it. Now that I have, I’m a bit torn. I get that it’s a good movie, and I certainly understand the wealth porn aspects of it. What I don’t understand is that no one else seems to see that this is really a very standard rom-com in a lot of ways.

On to the plot—Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU and is successful by all standards of American society. Her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), needs to return home to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend, and naturally Rachel is going to come along as his plus-one. Nick has kept a great deal of his family history a secret from Rachel, telling her only that the family is comfortable. Rachel is excited to go, for the wedding itself, to meet Nick’s family, and because her college roommate Peik Lin (Nora Lum using her stage name Awkwafina) lives in Singapore.

It’s not until Rachel visits Peik Lin that she discovers just how “comfortable” Nick’s family is. The Youngs own a substantial amount of real estate in Singapore, one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Youngs aren’t comfortable; they are wealthy beyond all measure, and virtually everyone Nick knows comes from that sort of money. How rich are they? In the opening scene, when Nick’s family is denied a room at an exclusive London hotel, they buy the hotel.

What happens is exactly what you think is going to happen. Rachel arrives, has a few minor embarrassing moments with Nick’s family, and has exactly the sorts of problems you assume she will. Nick’s ex-girlfriend (Jing Lusi) makes her as uncomfortable as possible, many assume she may be a gold digger, and it’s soon clear that Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is not a member of Team Rachel for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that, as an American, Rachel is more concerned with her own happiness than with anything else. That she was raised by a single mother is merely additional cause for alarm in the Young family.

Here’s the thing: Crazy Rich Asians is a good rom-com, but it’s not good specifically because of the story. In fact, the story is really nothing that special. Oh, the people involved are rich to a staggering degree, so there is the pure, ridiculous, screaming money aspect of the film. The cast is very good, and the parts are played perfectly. This is why Crazy Rich Asians works, because the story itself? It’s not that hard to see where things are going, because you’ve likely already seen this. If this is the Nordstrom’s version of the story, pretty much everyone has seen the Target or K-Mart version. There’s only one place this is going to go, and it goes there with all speed.

And that’s the biggest problem here. There is absolutely nothing in Crazy Rich Asians that I haven’t seen a dozen times over outside of the soul-crushing wealth. Nick is too perfect to be anything but a movie character, for instance. We know that his mother is going to hate his girlfriend because that is exactly the sort of tension we expect in a romantic comedy. If his mother and future wife actually got along, where would the drama be? I hate to say this for a movie that is as nicely cast and acted as this one, but there’s a hell of a lot of things being telegraphed here, and that’s a little disappointing.

We live in a world where, even a few years ago, a film like Crazy Rich Asians, a movie made by an American film company with an Asian director and cast, would probably not have been possible or at least extremely unlikely. That it exists is a good thing; it shows that there’s progress of a kind. We can have a major movie release where literally the entire cast is non-white. That’s a good thing. This is probably also the reason that story here is one that is so much a standard of the genre.

The truth is that I wanted to like this more than I did. You’ve seen a version of this if you’ve seen Coming to America or Pretty Woman or Sabrina or Arthur or about a dozen other films. The rich guy/poor girl plot is common enough to be a veritable subgenre of rom-coms. And so, for as much as I enjoyed this, I feel like I’ve seen it before. Even the stand-out characters, Peik Lin and Oliver (Nico Santos), the gay cousin, are the sassy characters you knew for a fact would be here.

Why to watch Crazy Rich Asians: It’s classy wealth porn.
Why not to watch: This is a surprisingly standard rom-com based in Singapore.


  1. I have not seen this movie yet, but from your review it does remind me of the book I am reading here in Easter. Pamela by Samuel Richardson covered these themes in 1740.

    1. Right--it's an old story. This is a very good version of that story and notable for its entirely-Asian cast, but it's hardly a revelation in terms of plot.

  2. I really enjoyed this, but don't disagree with anything you've written. It's a standard story, with standard story beats. And the cast is excellent.

    My standout would be Henry Golding, in his first movie role(!). I was actually relieved that despite a couple of opportunities for him to cheat, or at least be seen as cheating through some ridiculous misunderstanding, he didn't. He remained a good guy throughout. For some reason, that really resonated with me.

    We've seen enough hugely successful movies over the past few years with non-white casts that I really hope Hollywood finally gets the message. I want to see good human stories; I don't give a damn that the cast isn't white. Usually, a non-white cast means I'm going to see something new and different. Not exactly the case here, but still welcome.

    1. Right. I admit that I probably sounded a bit disappointed by this, and perhaps I was a touch. It is such a standard story that it's hard not to think that it could have been a My wife, who doesn't follow movies with the same sort of obsession I do, predicted about 90% of the ending.

      Nick's character is a really good guy, and while I appreciate that he's not an awful person like many of the other characters, he's movie good guy. He doesn't really have a flaw. I get that a lot of Crazy Rich Asians is wish fulfillment, so in that respect, I get it. He's as much a part of the fantasy as endless couture dresses and private jets.

      However, I agree that having movies with vastly diverse casts is all to the good. A couple of years ago during the Oscars, there was a short film about diversity in film. Kumail Nanjiani said something along the lines of, "Some of my favorite movies were made by straight white guys about straight white guys. Now they can watch movies starring me and they can relate to it. It's not hard. I've done it my whole life." He's right. It's not hard. Hollywood seems to need to keeping learning that, though.

  3. Yes, I saw this one in theatres when it first came out...apart from the all-Asian cast and a good Constance Wu performance, I found it just ok, remarkably familiar and really not worth all the fuss it received.

    1. I think the fuss was the all-Asian cast. It's noteworthy in an American production, and I get that, but this is not the revelation of moviedom I was led to believe.

  4. After watching this, once it came out on DVD, I must admit that I was surprised it was so hugely popular. I enjoyed and thought it was cute but ya I'd seen the story it was selling dozens of times before....though it enjoyed it then as well.

    One thing I did like about it that is more reminiscent of 30's & 40's romantic comedies than most of the present day ones is that this trusts its audience more. For instance for the scene set in the mahjong parlor. In most modern films there would be either some dialog or a whole scene where one character would say something along the lines of "I never understood mahjong" and another would go into unnecessary detail to explain it. Here the playing of it clearly works into the strategy of what these two women are discussing and you're able to follow how that factors in without explanation.

    Loved Michelle Yeoh, I thought the two leads pretty but vapid, and of course it provided untold eye candy but I'd rewatch Sabrina, Sense and Sensibility, the Cary Grant/Kate Hepburn version of Holiday or multiple others before giving this a spin again.

    1. That's about right where I am. It's good, and the mahjong scene works really well specifically because it doesn't play to the audience's lack of knowledge. I know a tiny bit about the game (really, almost none), but it's not necessary to understand the scene. What is important here is that they know how to play and that it's clearly working as a metaphor for the verbal/social game being played as well. I love that, without them reminding us of it, it plays into Rachel's job as an economics professor who teaches game theory. It's smart.

      But if I'm going to watch a movie packed with romance and starring an entirely Asian cast, I'm going with In the Mood for Love, hands down.