Randall Park’s directorial debut, Shortcomings, is sure to draw immediate comparisons to Crazy Rich Asians, a film that made $238 million and was praised for its representation of Asian culture in mainstream cinema. Park clearly knows this and addresses it immediately — Shortcomings’ opening scene is an almost line-for-line lift of Crazy’s opener. It’s quickly revealed, though, that this setup is actually a film-within-the-film, for which protagonist Ben (Justin H. Min, in a decidedly different role here than in last year’s After Yang) and his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) are attending the premiere. Miko, along with everyone else at the event, celebrates the meta-film for its representation, commenting on how this paves the way for lesser-known Asian filmmakers to get funding for bigger-budget films at major studios. But Ben, who calls himself a “filmmaker,” thinks the movie is a “garish mainstream rom-com that glorifies the capitalistic fantasy of vindication through wealth and materialism.”
Adrian Tomine — writer of both the script for this film adaptation of Shortcomings and the original graphic novel upon which it’s based — would be hard-pressed to craft a more defining introduction to a character. Ben is as unlikeable as they come, constantly pushing the limits of his relationship and friendships, never knowing when to shut the hell up and listen. But Tomine’s sharp writing ensures Ben’s bastardly characteristics are still of interest to viewers; no matter how unsympathetic you are to his idiocy, there’s no denying that Tomine and Park have created a character you’ll want to follow into the shit. Even Ben’s more mundane qualities, like his porn-watching habits (Miko calls him out for exclusively watching porn with white women in it), are brought up frequently in the light of a joke, but they’re clearly meant to reveal more about his insecurities and unstable identity than evince laughter.
Because of Ben’s cynical outlook and his inability to bring an ounce of understanding to his relationship, Miko grows tired of her boyfriend and takes an internship in New York City, making it clear that she doesn’t want him to come with her. The two part and agree to “take some time,” which Ben uses as an excuse to immediately go on a date with the hot young performance artist he just hired at the theater that he manages. When that, unsurprisingly, fails to pan out, he moves on to Sasha (Debby Ryan), who is also coming off a fresh breakup, which only ends in Ben once again putting his foot in his mouth and getting called out by Sasha for his behavior. All these plot acrobatics culminate with Ben heading to New York to confront Miko in typical rom-com fashion. Predictably, the gambit doesn’t end well, with Ben still unable to approach anything resembling real understanding.
While all this follows a predictable, if self-reflexive, rom-com template, Park takes care to keep things moving at a clip; at a comfortable 92 minutes, Shortcomings never stalls out or gets bogged down in unnecessary punchlines and self-congratulatory winking. This is partially due to the film’s deep bench of secondary characters, who all inject the proceedings with the kind of legitimate personality that too many rom-coms are missing. Particularly appealing are Sherry Cola as Ben’s serial-dater best friend Alice and the duo of Timothy Simons and Jacob Batalon as the film-nerd theater employees Ben supervises (the former tries to impress women by name-dropping Ruben Östlund and Céline Sciamma, while the latter hilariously names Spider-Man: No Way Home as his favorite movie).
While Crazy Rich Asians certainly did its part to move the Hollywood needle with regards to representation — though not without a fair bit of controversy — the film itself is little more than a tired rom-com recycle gussied up with the trappings of garish dresses and moneyed culture (in other words, Ben’s not entirely wrong). But where that film’s director, Jon M. Chu (and by extension the book’s author, Kevin Kwan), failed in part by not connecting viewers to characters who, by design, are mere haute couture types, Park and Tomine don’t want to be relatable (at least not pleasingly so). Ben’s conceived of as an insufferable chump, and the film’s ability to highlight that very fact while also, in the end, realizing something lovable in him proves that Shortcomings is a film that succeeds in advancing cinematic representation without taking the lowest common denominator path.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.