2023, R, 92 min. Directed by Randall Park. Starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Aug. 4, 2023
Even the title of Shortcomings feels like its own cruel little joke. Based on the series of graphic novels of the same name by Adrian Tomine, who also scripted this adaptation, this film is not just about trivially flawed characters working their way through the stubborn, contradictory mechanizations of modern living. It is a film about characters that are resolutely selfish and manipulative, whose shortsighted actions spur vicious cycles of mistakes shared between one another. All of these characters’ supposed “shortcomings” are more often relationship-ending defects. Ironically, this steadfast depiction of noxious people is what makes the movie appealing.
In comedies like Snatched and Straight Up, as well as his appearances as former SHIELD agent Jimmy Woo in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Randall Park has become the go-to guy for a good supporting comedy performance. In making his feature directorial debut, he assembles an Asian-led cast to locate a complicated entanglement between genuine societal disillusionment and behaving like a callous asshole. The primary culprit, of course, is Ben (Min), a snobby filmmaking school/actual filmmaking dropout who now manages the local independent arthouse cinema in Berkeley. He spends most of his time watching his Blu-rays of foreign arthouse classics while always finding a way to explain to his girlfriend Miko (Maki) how right he is about any given topic through his veneer of blameless reasonability (“I’m just being honest!” seems to be his mantra). When Miko heads out to New York for an extended stint to participate in an internship, the noncommittal, constantly pining Ben takes his opportunity to play the field with girls he feels are more his speed.
As Miko explains to Ben himself, that typically means blonde, blue-eyed white girls, and his bachelor period sees him trying and failing to woo women that he thinks he can form-fit into his manic pixie idealizations. In reality, they come with all the same relational complications that seem to make Ben revert to a repellent defensiveness, while simultaneously deflecting all of his issues onto the people around him. He firmly rejects the idea that he obsesses over European women, but later insists that a white man is a fetishist if he dates an Asian woman. He’s more interested in getting laid than something long term, until it’s him getting broken up with. He can explain away all of his perversions and imperfections. Nothing is ever his fault.
Through Ben, as well as the additional flaws of both Miko and Ben’s best friend Alice (Cola), the narrative takes an easygoing, lightly satirical approach – more prodding than incisive – to a plethora of topics that all converge within the lead character’s lack of self-actualization. Film-bro culture, gentrification, biphobia, racial betrayal, devaluation of the arts, representation, identity – all of it is fair game in a film about how all these facets of modern-day discourse stack on top of one another as to become an interpersonal overload. Intrinsically then, the film itself seems a tad overburdened by its commentary, its characters sometimes feeling more like hollowed-out representations of ideas rather than fully fleshed-out individuals.
The sense of heavy-handedness in the writing is somewhat offset by the lived-in feeling of the film’s settings. Taking place primarily in the Bay Area and New York, there’s a warm sense of authenticity to all of the city streets, one-bedroom apartments, bars, diners, and cinemas. As a film contributing to the larger conversation of Asian American representation onscreen, it’s refreshing to see one that rejects the conventions that typically come with the territory, and allows its characters to inhabit these environments while embracing their all-too-recognizable personal failings. Its final moments of an implied opportunity for growth feel requisite, but in a film full of struggles to reconcile one’s external relationships with their relationship to themselves, those moments get close to feeling earned.