Crazy poor Americans

Can we talk about “Crazy Rich Asians”? We crazy, poor Americans are turning out in crazy numbers to see this movie, whose exotic opulence transcends its cliched romantic comedy plot.

The movie seems fresh, not just in its all-Asian cast, but in widening our continent-locked, monolinguistic diversity horizon. The plot takes us to Singapore, where we learn that Asians are– surprise!–not just smart, diligent immigrants wanting to crash our party but a whole other world with its own , even better party over there.

A big part of what’s entertaining about “Crazy Rich” is the display of wealth of a fabulously wealthy Asian family in a wedding set against the city of Singapore with its worldclass architectural skyline looking like the future. The shot or two of New York look positively drab by comparison.

So yes, all that is refreshing. And entertaining– sort of like the theatrics that accompanied the Beijing Olympics. And lord knows we need widening of our horizons. But what exactly are we to make (what does the movie want us to make) of the wild displays of wealth flaunted in virtually every scene?

The movie itself seems to waver in its perspective. It wants us to admire the Asia we only dimly knew existed: if you westerners think you have a corner on great capitalist wealth, think again. But pretty much the only thing it presents to admire about the far East is not traditional eastern ways, spiritual values, but wealth. Which at times, when viewed through the eyes of a couple of characters, can border on nauseating..

The hero’s dragon lady mother hints at traditional values the West knows nothing of. At one point she turns up her nose at an instance in the festivities that offends her. But it is her own traditional female sacrifice of personal ambition for the good of family that has produced this wealth and its excessive displays.

Is the great wealth a good thing or not.? Is it OK that a few can buy a half a billion dollar yacht for personal use, make a million dollar bequest to a pet toy poodle, stage a $30 million wedding?

In other words, is “obscene” wealth obscene or not? The movie seems conflicted and that’s part of what’s crazy.

For the most part, we relatively poor Americans, increasingly divided by economic inequality, are supposed to join in the fun and approve these displays of wealth and, by implication, the economic system that produces them. In this context be party-pooping to do otherwise, and audiences seem to be doing as expected. (Is it possible that some viewers see it as inspirational: If I work hard, I too….”)

The American Chinese woman who has won the love of the scion of the rich Asian family is not just beautiful. She is a professor of economics. As a former academic myself I kept wishing the movie would seriously put her academic values, a life spent doing something other than accumulating wealth, up against all this vulgar display. But it doesn’t happen. She insists that her rich guy love her for herself, has to fight off his rich ex-girlfriend, beats the dragon lady at her own game, but other than that, she seems as happily blown away by the festivities as anyone else. (Apparently in her academic life she’s not of the socialist persuasion.)

This movie and the major fuss we are making about it is not reassuring about the mess our own country is in, values-wise, in this stage of our history, as we are led (if that’s the word) by one of the very wealthy and his unerring capitalist values and instincts.

It would be flattering this movie to suggest that it’s about our confusion over great wealth. It embodies that confusion. And depends heavily on values cluelessnes on the part of lots of poor, crazy Americans.

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