We want to think he’s the best, but really he’s kind of the worst
I first watched Crazy Rich Asians on a plane half way to America. I’d just moved into a new house (I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcases), had a busy work schedule ahead of me, and was facing the longest time away from my partner for months. So it’s safe to say I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for watching a sentimental rom-com. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried, riding high and sinking low with Rachel’s every success and setback. The movie made a huge profit, and has rightly been seen as a landmark for Asian representation. It may veer too close to capitalist propaganda for my liking, but it is a solid romantic comedy, with an ultimately endearing message about playing to your strengths and accepting people for who they are.
It was only on giving it a second viewing recently that I realised the dark secret at the heart of the movie. All this time we thought it was Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, played with appropriate iciness by Michelle Yeoh, who was the villain. But really, undeniably, it is Henry Golding’s Nick. ‘Hang on a minute!’ you may cry, ‘do you mean Nick who is portrayed as the ultimate catch, self-sacrificing and intelligent with washboard abs and a face to melt the heart of even the coldest viewer?’ Why yes, yes I do. I mean exactly that Nick. What possible reason could I have for thinking this? I’m glad you asked.
Nick’s appeal is built around the dual attack of wealth and good-looks. He is casual and self-effacing with his wealth, and clearly spends a lot of time at the gym. What is sorely lacking is personality. Few of us could miss that he’s essentially pretty boring. The only vague interest he demonstrates is in street food. We can all get behind this, but surely there must be more to him if he’s managed to hold the interest of NYU’s youngest ever faculty member? Seemingly not.
So far, so bland. He’s a cardboard cut-out of what women the world over are supposed to dream of attracting. Does he really need a personality as well? Surely a lack of hobbies is not enough to make him a villain? Quite right: his actions take care of that. We are led to believe that the couple have been dating for some time, long enough that he deems it appropriate to take her to the wedding of his best friend on the other side of the world, and meet his family. However, they somehow manage to get this far without her learning anything at all about his socio-economic status. When questioned about his family’s wealth (which is not until they leave for the trip), he says they are ‘comfortable’. In one of the film’s many great lines Rachel notes that super-rich people always call themselves ‘comfortable’. We’re left asking: where were they going for their dates? Has she never been to his apartment? And more importantly, how and why did he keep such a significant fact about his background and upbringing a secret from her? Nothing adds up.
It is quite normal for couples to not discuss finances early on in their relationships. As a tenured professor at an American university Rachel is probably not doing too badly herself. But there is an openness to her character which makes it unlikely that her background won’t have been mentioned. She loves her mum and is proud of all they have achieved together as a family. So we are left to assume that it was embarrassment that stopped Nick telling his truth – perhaps he thinks it would be awkward for her, from a deprived but meritocratic background, to learn of his disgustingly privileged one. It would be uncomfortable for him to see how much she has accomplished on her own in the face of far harsher odds than his. He is the heir presumptive of an enormous property empire; she is an economics professor who used her brain to get where she is.
So for the sake of temporarily saving face he chooses to throw her to the dogs. They are a bizarrely matched couple, given her intellectual life and his seeming lack of interests, but they are portrayed as a loving one, and any kind and caring partner would have sat Rachel down and discussed with her what she was letting herself in for. Or rather what he was letting her in for. There would still have been the eventual questions about her upbringing to overcome, but to be forewarned is to be forearmed, and only a villain would deny Rachel the opportunity to psychologically prepare for battle.
To make matters worse, when they get to Singapore he proceeds to abandon her as often as possible. Yes, she wants to see Peik Lin, and yes he has wedding duties to attend to, but does he really need to leave her alone quite as much as he does? She is thrown in at the deep end and left to flounder. Cousin Astrid pays more attention than Nick, which is damning given that she has tough trouble in her own life to deal with.
But perhaps Nick’s biggest error is in his abject failure to re-evaluate in the face of change. He leaves Rachel to fight battles alone that should be joint, and in spite of everything he ultimately re-trenches in the toxic atmosphere that created their heartache in the first place. His dismissal of the fish incident should have sounded alarm bells. He makes her an offer she could only ever refuse: to give up his family for her. It is thanks to her own strength and initiative that they get their ‘happy’ ending. Their blow-out engagement party shows that he could never really give up that life – he wants her to fit into his way of life, or not at all.
Of course, as a socialist, I think the real problem is that Nick isn’t sickened by his family’s wealth into giving away all of his money and starting afresh, but that would probably be asking too much of this genre.
Eleanor Young understands that it takes a certain type of self-sacrifice to do what she has done, and Rachel’s career alone tells her that she’s not cut out for it: it would be too much to ask of her. Though she couches her argument in classist and elitist terms, can we not slightly see her point? How will Rachel pursue her deeply meaningful career (she’s made tenure!), which she is passionate about and enjoys, if she becomes Nick’s wife? For all her bad behaviour, Eleanor’s view is a pragmatic one. Nick, by contrast, has singularly refused to acknowledge that Rachel may have a different view, doggedly pursuing his normal way of living at the expense of Rachel’s feelings.
Nick, like so many romantic-comedy love interests before him, is billed as the perfect boyfriend. But all he really teaches us is that if we want to get something done, we’ll have to do it ourselves.
Am I being too harsh on Nick? All I can say is that if he were my boyfriend I’d be a lot more annoyed with him than his mother! Love interests in romantic-comedies are rarely all they’re cracked up to be; who are your favourites and who do you think are just the worse? Let me know in the comments!