Critics are often derided as joyless, and not without reason — browse any Best Of list and you’re liable to find a deluge of somber dramas, with one lone comedy (ideally “biting”, rarely fun) thrown in for good measure. But I’d argue this isn’t the whole story; or at least that, in the age of Trump, it’s rapidly changing. What critics are really craving is purity, mostness — and while “most profound” and “heartfelt” are still the prized orchids, there’s demand for all manner of bloom. In 2018 alone: Mission Impossible Fallout is heralded as the most audacious, stunt-driven; Blockers the most delightfully raunchy; Black Panther the most ambitiously Marvel-ous; Won’t You Be My Neighbor the most happy-sad, simple; Paddington 2 the most tender, heart-melting. Even Mamma Mia 2 is winning some critical love: yes it’s silly, the headlines grant, but it’s *proudly silly, exuberantly so. In the war against dourness and national malaise, we’ve realized that late night cynicism only has so much firepower. Sometimes we need to bring out the big guns. Sometimes we need Swedish pop music. On an island. With Cher.
I’ve yet to see Meryl’s latest, but I’m calling it early. Crazy Rich Asians is my Mamma Mia: the big, spectacle-driven rom com that wears its predictability on its sleeve, using well-worn tropes as narrative scaffolding to support a charismatic-as-hell cast, a glamorous shooting location, plenty of razzle dazzle and a killer soundtrack to boot. And it addresses similar questions (what are the limits of family, for one) in vivid, new contexts. To juggle all this while also holding the distinction of being the first Hollywood film with an Asian-majority cast in 25 (!) years — and to not only bear that pressure but thrive in it, wear it effortlessly? Well, that’s cause for everyone to pop the trunk, throw on something fancy, and hit the dance floor.
Which isn’t to say this is a perfect movie, or even a particularly piercing one. If anything, it’s the flaws that make it so nostalgic, so guiltily fun: be it trying-on-the-dress montage or airplane confession, a rowdy BFF with a third act pep talk or a male lead with all the intrigue and expressiveness of a cologne-scented body pillow, this bears every hallmark of a vintage, Wedding Singer-era rom com. With the requisite highs and lows that come with it. But for every obvious plot device or stock character, there are two more compelling ones waiting in the wings: Michelle Yeoh and Gemma Chan ooze scene-stealing intensity, and aforementioned BFF Awkwafina does enough heavy lifting to warrant her own spin-off. Even the trope-ier side characters give it their all, with Ken Jeong and Jimmy O. Yang bringing the zany, Nico Santos the fabulous, and Chris Pang the abs. (Did I say that last part out loud?) Holding together the absurdly large cast is the wonderful Constance Wu. She has multiple hats to wear, here, and she balances them deftly: empathetic audience surrogate, grounded straight man, comic foil, dramatic lead. She’s a generous team player who knows when to yield the floor and when to let her particularities shine.
As a rom com alone, this is well above average. As a meta-rebuke to Hollywood “conventional wisdom”, it’s a slam dunk. One can rightly question whether the premise (a comedy about the ultra wealthy, set in a country reeling from classist divisions) brings up more problems than it solves, or whether it genuinely represents the Asian community at large (counter question: why hold it to that standard?). But there can be no questioning the death blow it deals to industry cop-outs regarding “marketability” or “talent pool size.” Scrolling through the IMDB list, I see 20+ memorable stars-in-waiting, with as diverse a range as any recent blockbuster of note. If Hollywood has a lick of sense, this won’t be the last we see of them.
Chris and I talk romantic conventions, my personal nostalgia for the Singapore Skyline, and Hollywood’s apparent conflation of university lectures and TED talks in this week’s episode of The Spoiler Warning Podcast.