Crazy Rich Asians — Breaking Tropes is Hard to Do
It’s August, and that means Christmas decorations are already on shelves in your local Walgreens. Let us mark the occasion by playing a game called “Guess the Movie”! Question: In what movie do our characters have to “save Christmas”? Answer: a lot. (Which asks the questions, why does Christmas need to be saved every year?) But if you have ever wondered, “Gee, this movie seems a lot like this other movie…” You can thank our helpful friends called tropes.
Tropes are used all over the place in storytelling. They allow the story teller to pull the collective knowledge of culture to create shorthand language that is more precise than explaining the whole process out. For example, when a character who is up tight and a homebody goes to a party for the first time, as they step onto the dance floor they whisper to themselves, “I’m not in Kansas anymore…”, we the audience know exactly how this character feels, and know exactly what movie they are referencing. Tropes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes from allusions and references (what shared movies, books, art, image and music is out there), to scenarios (what drives the plot along), to character arcs (what a character learns during the movie). (For a more in-depth look at these fantastic tropes and where to find them, visit tvtropes.com).
Tropes aren’t bad in and of themselves; they can be very helpful in world building without beating the audience over the head with exposition from a character, or worse narration. But each time a trope is used, it creates a depression into the ground much like a wagon wheel on dirt. A few times over the same patch of ground and it isn’t noticeable. Several decades of using the same tropes, and you get stuck in a rut.
This is the sad state of the American movie going experience. First there is a box office success. Then studios rush to have lightning strike twice by repeat the same formula that made hit to beginning with. Such is our world of sequels, prequels and reboots. These are all safe, well known stories to tell, and because they are safe, the studio feels safe in green lighting them. It has become a self-reinforcing safety cycle that protects the wallet of the studios, and stifles creativity.
Every once in while a movie comes along and shatters the cycle. Crazy Rich Asians is trope breaking both in front of and behind the camera. On the production side, we have the first Hollywood movie in a quarter century to feature an all-Asian cast and the studio didn’t whitewash this movie either. (In real life tropes, or these patterns people and systems fall into, go by another name called: systematic racism.) On the narrative side, Crazy Rich Asians tells a story without falling into the predictable trope trap of romantic comedy and delivers a whole heartedly refreshing and enjoyable movie.
NYU Professor, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is surprised to learn that her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding), is not just rich but crazy rich, as they leave New York City for Singapore to meet his family. Rachel must quickly learn the internal family politics and see if hers and Nick’s love for one another can withstand the onslaught of attacks from Nick’s matriarchal family.
The first sign that tropes are out the window is when Rachel realizes that Nick is quite wealthy. Crazy Rich Asians let’s Nick and Rachel be in love, have conflict that isn’t cheating, or the classic “only looks over to see a kiss out of context.” They resolve this initial conflict with communication.
The Goh’s mansion of Rachel’s college best friend, Piek Lin (Awkwafina) is set up to be gaudy “new money rich”. Peik Lin’s fashion matches the whimsical nature of her character and of the house. When she picks out a new dress for Rachel to wear to the big party where she meets Nick’s family for the first time, the typical story line is Peik Lin would pick an outlandish dress like in Legally Blonde, and Rachel’s first impressions are based off the ugly dress. However, Peik Lin picks out a stunning dress that makes Rachel look ravishing.
At the bachelorette party the plot is driven by Rachel’s inner struggle for acceptance rather than an outward action of seeking revenge on the mean girls at the party. Think of camp scenes of The Parent Trap or any part of Mean Girls.
Nick’s absentee father is away on business. The trope here is that Mom’s stubbornness against Rachel isn’t ended with a Daddy-ex machina when Nick’s father instantly welcome Rachel into the family. An example is King John’s role in Robin Hood. The conflict is resolved by Rachel by communication. She gives Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) a choice, instead of treating her as she has been treated.
This might not be a trope, but Astrid’s husband’s extended shot of him showering smashes any stereotypical Hollywood that only Asian women are sex symbols.
How often do we see direct communication to resolve a plot point? How often do we see friends acting with the best interest of their friends in mind? How often do we see characters not seeking revenge? Crazy Rich Asians just took away two of the pillars of comedy, miscommunication and sight gags, and it still delivers as one of the funniest movies of the year. It took away the myth of redemptive violence and still gave the antagonist what they deserve.
Showing a character’s inner struggle is always more difficult than having them steal the thing or doing the task before the countdown ends. The great part of Crazy Rich Asians story telling is that it is built around the relationships not the events. Nick could have been middle class and taken Rachel back to Lowry City, Missouri, and the stakes of the relationship would still be the same. Will she win Nick’s family and mother’s approval, or does she even need it to be begin with? Nick being super rich is just a gimmick and Crazy Rich Asians smartly puts that as a back drop not as its driving force of the plot.
It gives us nuanced characters that are relatable, even if having billions of dollars is not. These characters also ‘know’ each other. How often do characters, who are supposed to be experts, ask elementary questions or are surprised by the information they are given as if it is being heard for the first time. Even when Rachel learns of Nick’s wealth, she explains her confusion, and frustration with him for keeping it a secret, but through clear communication work out a resolution. Here we have are mature adults acting in mature ways, but still we are laughing our butts off, and shedding a tear, at this hilarious, and heartwarming movie. Contrast this with Monster-In Law. You get a feeling that Jennifer Lopez and her fiancé don’t even know each other. Too often in movies we have weak relationships. Yes, this might lead to some comedic misunderstandings, but it gets old. And Crazy Rich Asians proves you can have a hilarious movie without resorting to the standard rom-com tropes of misunderstandings.
Now, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t perfect. The prologue felt tacked on, the pacing is a bit sluggish, the family introductions are a bit clunky, Astrid and her husband’s subplot doesn’t pack the emotional punch it should have, and Peik Lin’s brother’s voyeurism is shrugged off for laughs. But these minuscule nitpicks are happily ignored because you get lost in the huge amounts of good story telling. Points to author Kevin Kwan and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim for creating great characters for page and screen.
You may not have a billion dollars lying around, but you will leave wanting to buy a ticket for Singapore. (It has some of the best skyline and food porn of 2018.) You will leave the theater thinking it was a crazy good movie.