The rom-com is going through a weird time. Like every other movie genre that was once incredibly popular, it’s been consumed by the beast of branded franchise moviemaking — an insatiable brute that grows bigger and stronger by the hour and will one day kill us all. One day soon.
These days, if movies don’t fall into the category of tentpole products with mass appeal, they’re more often than not a niche curiosity, getting limited releases if not going straight to Netflix.
And while there are still teen movies and heist thrillers and Westerns, the most popular recent examples of those genres are called “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Ant-Man” and “Logan.”
The rom-com itself has become a subgenre couched into the business of superheroics. The ‘90s had Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. We’ve got Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, Batman and Wonder Woman (shudder).
And while we’ll always have Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and while we still see the occasional rom-com hit like “Silver Linings Playbook” come along, there’s no denying that the genre’s been on the ropes for a while now.
All of this is to explain why it’s such a weirdly exhilarating experience to see “Crazy Rich Asians,” an unabashedly throwback rom-com that hits all its marks and offers the added value of a setting and culture unfamiliar to most American audiences.
Though “Crazy Rich Asians” (directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the novel by Kevin Kwan) is essentially just a fish-out-of-water fairy tale, it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in the sheer exuberant energy of the film and its appealing cast. This is admittedly not my kind of thing. But it is an example of this kind of thing done very, very well.
If “Crazy Rich Asians” is a hit, which it’s projected to be, it could revive a genre that’s long been in need of a little love.
The film stars Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American New Yorker and economics professor who is head over heels for her boyfriend, Nick Young (first-time actor Henry Golding).
With things getting serious, Nick invites Rachel to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore, where Rachel will also get to meet Nick’s family.
Upon arriving, Rachel realizes Nick hasn’t been entirely forthcoming about his family history. He’s much wealthier than he let on. He is, in fact, heir to one of the richest families in all of Asia.
Rachel, blindsided by this info, is determined to overcome her outsider status. But winning over Nick’s domineering mother, Eleanor (a magisterial Michelle Yeoh), will prove much tougher than she thinks.
This all plays out exactly as you’d expect and exactly as you’d want it to. There’s even a grand romantic gesture on a commercial flight!
The comedy and conflict come courtesy of Nick’s eccentric and elitist vipers nest of a family. Only Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and second cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) show Rachel much in the way of hospitality. They help her navigate this world. As does Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina).
It’s a fine ensemble with plenty of entertaining performances, but in the end “Crazy Rich Asians” hinges on Wu’s performance. And, lucky for the movie, she’s a bona fide star and an endlessly charming rom-com heroine.
Watching Wu/Rachel prove herself and get the better of all these rich jerks is one of the movie highlights of the summer. It might even remind you of another iconic rom-com, that ‘90s movie about the pretty woman.
Perhaps there’s life in the rom-com yet.