[Spoilers abound for Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before below. But if you haven’t watched both of these already… get thee to your preferred digital video provider and fix that!]
I’ll start by saying I wasn’t exactly disappointed by Crazy Rich Asians. I mean, you can’t actually be disappointed by something that a) you love, b) makes you laugh, and c) centers around Asian characters for the first time a big-studio movie has done that in approximately ever.
But why was everyone saying it was a romantic comedy? (Warning: rant incoming.) Romantic comedies, in my expert dropped-my-film-major-because-I-couldn’t-stay-awake-for-the-screenings opinion, require the romance to be central to the plot. Bridget Jones’ Diary is a romantic comedy because the relationship in the central couple, and their journey towards each other, drives most of the major developments. Mean Girls isn’t because, even though the girls are technically fighting over Aaron Samuels, the plot is really about how Cady, Regina, and Janis negotiate their relationships. Aaron Samuels could easily have been a cardboard cutout for all the effect he actually had on the plot.
Similarly, Knocked Up, by genre, is a romantic comedy because the plot is about a couple coming together after an unexpected pregnancy, whereas (say) Zoolander isn’t even though there’s a romance in it. But how often do people actually refer to Knocked Up as a “romcom”? I’ll tell you how often: not that often, because, guess what! It’s a “boy movie.”
So the only reason I can think of that everyone was calling Crazy Rich Asians a rom-com is that it was female-centric and no one understands that comedies can star women without being, at their core, romantic. It’s far more Mean Girls than Bridget Jones. It’s really about a plucky young upstart, Rachel (Constance Wu), scrapping for power against a powerful, rich, snobbish enemy, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), and winning. Henry Golding’s handsome, rich, but not particularly upstanding or charismatic character is just the object that they’re fighting over. He might as well be the pretty blonde girl in a male-centered comedy for all the agency he’s given. Or in other words, he’s Aaron Samuels (the pretty boy who’s the object of a tug of war in Mean Girls).
Even when Henry and Rachel finally get back together at the end, it is literally only because Eleanor decided to release him from her clutches. The climactic final scene isn’t the reunion but Eleanor’s visit to Rachel’s mah-jongg table. And mah-jongg makes an excellent metaphor for the movie overall: women playing complicated games of power and intrigue. It barely matters that Nick is kind of a dick who didn’t bother to tell Rachel he was rich until they were literally sitting in a first-class seat on their way to visit his family, because he secretly thinks all women are golddiggers or something; he’s almost entirely irrelevant.
The triumph is not that he and Rachel are together, because their love for each other is static throughout the film (and portrayed more in dialogue than in any actual actions between them); the triumph is Rachel’s, against Eleanor. In a true romcom, Rachel and Henry’s reunion would be far more important than Rachel coming to an understanding with Eleanor.
Naturally, I traipsed to the theater as soon as I could to see this much-vaunted romantic comedy with the most Asian representation ever. And like I mentioned, I wasn’t exactly disappointed, because I did really love the movie. But I was pissed at all the critics who can’t tell the difference between a comedy with a love story in it and a comedy that is a love story, and kind of sad that Nick was such a dink.
Enter my friend N., who texted me shortly after that to direct me to watch To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix. Since she was the person who told me to watch the earlier Netflix romcom Set It Up and correctly predicted that I’d love it, I had to trust her. I don’t think I even realized it was about an Asian girl till I started watching.
But lo and behold, not only was it hilarious and adorable, not only did it also have Asian representation, not only did it bring “thirst artist” Noah Centineo into our collective lives, but it was also an actual romantic comedy!
Even further, I turned to Keets halfway through and squealed, “Oh my God, this is a romantic comedy of Fake Relationship Turns Into Real Relationship! MY FAVORITE KIND!” See also: Picture Perfect; Drive Me Crazy; The Proposal; Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. But never had a movie done this trope so damn well. For those who haven’t seen it, bookish Lara Jean accidentally sends a love letter to her emo-kid crush, and enters in a fake relationship with handsome jock Peter Kavinsky to throw their respective crushes off the scent. Since the emo-kid crush is also very cute and a promising prospect, I didn’t realize until halfway through what was really happening. The point, though, is that the two main characters and their developing feelings for each other drive the plot. Peter Kavinsky has agency in the movie; he’s not just a prop who sits there and smiles. The climax isn’t between Lara Jean and her romantic rival, Peter’s ex, but between Lara Jean and Peter when their feelings for each other come to a head.
What’s my point? Duh! Watch both these movies! If you’re a die-hard romantic like me, don’t get too excited about Crazy Rich Nick and the far-too-forgiving Rachel–Crazy Rich Asians holds so many pleasures for the viewer, but the love story isn’t one of them. Hold out for the real thing: Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky. It’s maaaybe not the best movie I saw in 2018 from a snobbish critical perspective, but it was definitely the one I’m going to watch over and over again.