Crazy Rich Asians was one of the first major studio releases to feature an all-Asian cast in decades. That’s important—the runaway success of movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, and Widows will lead to blockbuster releases that aren’t just a diverse riff on old genres and tropes dominated by white casts. However, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a diverse riff—it’s also a really great movie. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the nominating body for the Oscars, is gonna have to deal with the fact that one of the most skillfully made movies of the year was a silly, sweet little romantic comedy.
How did it wind up like this?
On May 4th, 2018, Overboard got vomited into theaters. If you had to do a Google search to remind yourself of what that movie was, you probably aren’t alone. Anna Farris, a great comedic actor and the lead in that movie, would probably have to Google it herself. It boasts a powerful 25 percent “rotten” rating from review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. It is a perfect example of the romantic comedy genre; cheaply made with enough likable people in it to sell a few tickets. No one seemed to love it, it wasn’t aiming to be high art, and people in the mood for something easy probably had a few giggles. Just breezy fun destined to be culturally forgotten and sold in gas station discount DVD bins.
That’s why Crazy Rich Asians is so remarkable. Watch the trailer and it looks like more of the same. It’s a couple of beautiful people on a zany adventure that leaves plenty of room for some comedic misunderstanding. Simple, formulaic, and good clean fun.
But that’s not what the movie delivered on. When critics got their hands on it, they were using phrases like “knockout visuals” (Andrea Gronvall of The Chicago Reader) and “a surprisingly trenchant study of class and cultural difference” (Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times). Entertainment Weekly named the women of the cast as their “entertainers of the year”.
It has a Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” rating of 91%. The critics are quick to point out it’s a good time, and the frivolity of the genre is on full display. But it just happens to be a remarkably well made good time, and one that takes the craft of filmmaking seriously in a way romantic comedies don’t always bother to.
And the Oscar goes to…
Boy does the Academy hate comedy. Since 2010 the only true laugh-out-loud comedies that have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar are Midnight in Paris and Toy Story 3 (Winner Birdman had comedic elements but it would be hard pressed to argue that it’s a comedy on its face). This is absurd. If the goal of the award is to celebrate the best movie of the year it’s nearly impossible to believe that only two comedies of this decade are worthy of competition. Comedies don’t always have the emotional weight of the epics the Academy likes to pick, but it’s bonkers to suggest that they can’t be counted among the best pictures of the year.
To get it right this time, the Academy needs to acknowledge that making a good romantic comedy is as hard as making a good war picture or historical epic. The fact that as a genre they are mostly forgettable fluff pieces just means it is more important to honor the ones that succeed at being more than that. If Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t look like the classic Oscar bait film, that’s for the best. Skillfully made movies come in many forms.
On January 22nd, the date of the nominees announcement, don’t be surprised if this little “fluff piece” is named alongside A Star is Born and If Beel Street Could Talk. The fact that it lacks the dramatic heft of those movies highlights how skillfully assembled it was. Crazy Rich Asians was one of the best pictures of the year and it should be acknowledged that way.