Think of a recent rom-com you’ve liked, and the chances are you saw it on Netflix. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up, for instance, are the kind of films that thrive on streaming services even while many studios seem to believe that rom-coms hold no profit potential next to the sequels, reboots and comic-book movies that currently dominate your local multiplex. Even critically-adored rom-coms that do get a cinematic release tend to be financed by streaming services – see the Amazon-produced Oscar darling The Big Sick from last year.
This is pertinent because when Netflix got wind of Crazy Rich Asians, they actually offered boatloads of cash and complete artistic control to the filmmakers if they sold the film to them instead of theatrically releasing the film with Warner Bros. The director, Jon M. Chu, decided to stick with the Warners deal, a financial gamble that could have lost them a lot of money, but would hopefully turn the film (with its all-Asian ensemble cast) into more of a pop-cultural event by virtue of its cinematic release.
It’s a gamble that’s certainly paid off financially, but it’s also produced one of the most instantly loveable rom-coms in years. Like Black Panther earlier this year, Crazy Rich Asians is so rooted in its cultural specificity that it manages to overcome the conventions of the genre even if it occasionally lapses into some worn-out cliches of its genre.
The story follows Rachel (Constance Wu), a young Chinese-American woman who, after dating her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) for a year, accompanies him to Singapore for the first time for his best friend’s wedding. At the same time, she meets his family and finds that they are unexpectedly crazy-rich, forming the basis for a classic culture-clash as she navigates through the ways of the ultra-wealthy and a culture that’s more alien to her than she could have anticipated.
Even in that brief synopsis you can sense that Chu might have taken a bingo card of rom-com staples and used them as a storytelling manual, but sometimes the cliches stack on top of each other so overtly that it feels almost inspired. There’s a soundtrack which heavily relies on pop songs, a mouthy best friend AND a gay best friend, but the moment the film ensures that the gay best friend runs our heroine through an obligatory makeover montage while “Material Girl” plays over the top, you can’t help but laugh at the sheer audacity of the filmmakers in their commitment to cliches.
But the broader mechanics of a romantic comedy must be predictable, because if even a minor element is changed then the film ceases to be a romantic comedy. The relative success or failure of a rom-com instead comes from the details of the characters, the scenarios and, indeed, the romantic and comedic elements themselves.
This is where the film truly shines. Each individual element, even the cliches, are often executed so proficiently or boldly that they manage to feel far fresher than they are. For instance, the mouthy best friend is played by Awkwafina (already a break-out presence in Oceans 8 a few months ago) who might be the film’s comic secret weapon. And the poppy soundtrack is made up of Mandarin-language covers of familiar songs – Katherine Ho’s cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” which plays over the closing reel, is a particular highlight.
It’s hard to believe that one of the year’s best mainstream films comes from the director of Now You See Me 2, but Chu infuses the film with a buzzy visual energy (especially during an early texting montage, which are always deceptively tricky to render cinematic) and draws great performances out of his ensemble cast.
The characters themselves are genuinely delightful to spend time with. Wu and Golding are instantly believable and likeable as the central couple – not only because they’re both gorgeous and lovely, but also because their relationship feels rooted in empathy and mutual respect, which is rarer than you might think in a mainstream romantic comedy.
Gemma Chan is worth singling out as she contributes a devastating supporting turn to a side-story that adds a welcome poignancy to the proceedings, but it’s Michelle Yeoh’s performances as Nick’s mother that truly grounds the film. The story is rooted in Chinese and Asian cultural ideas of family, filial devotion and sacrifice, and Yeoh’s character provides the film’s emotional and thematic through-line in a way that never feels on-the-nose or preachy. While she often butts heads with the ever-reasonable and measured Rachel, you always have a clear understanding of her motivations, and none of the film’s conflicts feel contrived at all.
While a slightly rushed ending and a (thankfully brief) cameo from Ken Jeong threaten to mar the proceedings, this is unquestionably one of the most delightful films of the year. Take everyone you know and love to see it, and remember to thank the filmmakers for ensuring that the film received a proper cinema release so that this joyful ray of celluloid sunshine can close out the summer as it deserves to.