Hollywood shapes all things in its image. While the novel from which John M. Chu’s 2018 romcom Crazy Rich Asians is adapted is one whose pleasures are ultimately consolatory and conservative, it does at least resist providing an entirely happy ending for the couple at its heart. Its villains remain villainous and, for all its rags-to-riches wish-fulfilment vibe, its Cinderella figure’s access to entrenched power structures remains tenuous and contingent.
The film, by contrast, is as thoroughly conventional, structurally speaking, as it’s possible to get, although its predictability is somewhat leavened by strong performances from the likes of Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan. Wu and Golding play Rachel and Nick, a seemingly ordinary middle-class couple in New York who find their relationship under sudden strain when Nick invites Rachel back to meet his family in Singapore, only for her to discover that they’re some of the wealthiest people in the country. Will Rachel ever be accepted by Nick’s snobby high-society family?
The answer is, inevitably, yes, and the film has to sacrifice some of its own character work to achieve this: Nick’s cold, unhappy grandmother Eleanor, who has throughout the film remained resolute in her hostility towards Rachel, performs an unearned about-face at the end in a move that somewhat fatally undermines the seriousness of the social problem that Nick and Rachel must overcome to be together. Similarly, the film’s “mean girls” are far less relentless and uncompromising in their disdain for Rachel than they were in the novel, as well as far less inclined to seduce Nick away from Rachel. The novel has what teeth it does partly because Nick’s family’s extreme wealth is presented as a real threat to Nick and Rachel’s relationship; the film dilutes even that quite basic understanding of privilege and instead renders the fabulous wealth of its characters as a fabulous fantasy with no real-world effects or ramifications. Who doesn’t want to hire out an entire tropical island for their hen party, amirite?
Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, remarkable for the fact that it’s a major Hollywood film featuring an almost entirely non-white cast, a phenomenon that’s still lamentably rare – and while it’s good to see mainstream films looking beyond the concerns of the global north, there’s been plenty of criticism of this particular film for actually reinforcing dominant hegemonies in Singapore itself.
Ultimately, as a film, it’s basically fine. Watching it is a not-bad way to spend two hours, if you’re after something untaxing and conventional. But I can’t particularly see myself watching it again, the way I can see myself returning to the novel: ironically, despite the wealth and power its characters possess, the stakes are simply not high enough to make it truly engaging.