Money lessons from Crazy Rich Asians
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
It’s not often you get a chance to write a personal finance movie review. Many recent films with financial themes run to the grittier, corporate side of the spectrum—your Big Shorts, Money Monsters, Margin Calls. While the global drama of the 2008 financial crisis can make for a great Hollywood thriller, these movies rarely delve into the personal side of finance: the confusing, awkward, and sometimes treacherous experience of dealing with money in everyday life. That’s not to say there’s anything mundane about Crazy Rich Asians, the summer blockbuster based on Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name. The film’s backdrops—Singapore skyscrapers, private resort islands, an entire cargo ship rented out for a bachelor party—are lavish; characters casually buy million-dollar jewelry and charter helicopters. They seem to be clinking Champagne glasses in nearly every scene.
But beneath the decadence, there’s a vital message at the heart of Crazy Rich Asians about money and relationships: Finances bind people together and push them apart, especially when love and money are at odds.
The movie follows Rachel (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor who travels with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to Singapore to meet his family—who, she quickly learns, occupy an economic stratum that’s more or less…stratospheric. Crazy Rich Asians pulls no punches in examining how wealth—having it and not—can destabilize relationships. But it also leaves moviegoers with lessons about how to discuss money with people in your life—and why it’s so important. Starting with the big one:
Have the money talk before you get serious in a relationship
Rachel and Nick have been together a year when the movie opens—but she doesn’t have an inkling of his superrich upbringing until they step into the full-service private first-class suite on their jet to Singapore. Rachel was raised by a single mother, her financial beacon seems set on frugal, and she’s up-front about it: She flies economy and takes her mom’s prepacked Tupperware snacks on the plane. The fact that Nick is so much cagier about his financial status leaves Rachel disoriented in the opulent surroundings, and ultimately sets the stage for misunderstanding and hurt between the couple.
For most people, the financial skeleton in their closet isn’t a stake in a multimillion-dollar company. But no matter who you are, it’s important to get on the same page as your partner about financial history, habits, and goals before you take big steps like moving in or marrying. It may not be sexy, but you’ve got to talk debt and taxes if you’re planning on building a life together.
Gender isn’t destiny
Throughout the movie Rachel clashes with the idea that, in Nick’s world, women are expected to stay within the family realm. While Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), and his grandmother, family matriarch Ah Ma (Lisa Lu), are respected (even feared), financial power and agency is largely consolidated in the hands of male relatives. As an American career woman—and an economics professor to boot—Rachel is initially seen as an affront to that traditional order.
But one of the loveliest themes in the movie is that Rachel’s tenacity and strategy—the very strengths that help her overcome adversity in the story arc—are things she learned from her mom (Kheng Hua Tan). This is brought home in a high-stakes game of mah-jongg between Rachel and Eleanor near the end of the film. While this scene isn’t actually directly about money, Rachel talking about how her mother taught her to play mah-jongg, with all the strategy and skill it takes to play it well, strikes a chord with a major issue in personal finance. Women need to be instilled with the same money confidence as men; daughters and sons should receive the exact same lessons about saving, spending, and especially investing. And games are a great entry point for all kids.
Don’t raise judge-y kids
From sly snubs to fish guts strewn all over her hotel bed, Rachel is subjected to a torrent of cruelty from people in Nick’s orbit. A lot of this is posited as a reaction to her outsider status as an American interloper, but much of the catty behavior boils down to plain classism. Having not grown up in the same echelon of wealth, Rachel’s mannerisms, her looks (“It’s like she hasn’t even heard of plastic surgery!” someone whispers), and her clothes are all frowned upon—even by the people who are on her side.
Of course, this sets the stage for a classic Cinderella moment in the third act, when Rachel puts on her revenge outfit and shows everyone. It’s fun—who doesn’t love a “can you say makeover!” montage? But Cinderella stories wouldn’t be necessary if people weren’t conditioned to appraise others based on perceived access to wealth. Kids are incredible sensitive to the messages they hear from their parents about money. Rather than judging how other people lead their financial lives—whether they have less or more—talk about what money choices your family makes, and how they’re informed by your collective values.
Remember that money isn’t everything
Family values run deep for the characters in Crazy Rich Asians—and even in such extravagant surroundings, the most important values have nothing to do with money at all. In one scene, Nick brings Rachel to his grandmother’s home, where the family has gathered to make dumplings. It’s not something they do out of necessity; with their wealth, they could afford to outsource dumpling production a thousand times over. But they keep making dumplings together because it’s a tradition that has bound together generations. It’s a bittersweet moment in the film; Rachel is let in on this intimate family bonding, only to be told, by Eleanor, that she’ll never be worthy of her son.
But Rachel doesn’t love Nick for his money, either, and that’s what helps her win in the end. By the finale of Crazy Rich Asians, there has been a reckoning about wealth, class, gender, and family—one that leads, ultimately, to a happy ending. This is a romantic comedy, after all, but one that goes beyond the typical rom-com script to explore love’s economic complexities. Let’s hope we see more like it.