There’s a rather clever wink-wink opening to actor Randall Park’s debut feature as a director, Shortcomings, which, when all is said and done, mostly fails to deliver on its promise.
A young couple, the aspiring filmmaker, Ben (Justin H. Min), and his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), are watching what’s clearly a spoof of Crazy Rich Asians at a Bay Area film festival. Ben loathes it for being a “garish mainstream rom-com that glorifies a capitalistic fantasy,” while Miko think it’s a “game changer” that will allow aspiring Asian-American directors to make something “cooler, more artsy or whatever.”
The Bottom Line
An appealingly acted but watered-down dramedy.
Shortcomings is, alas, not that cool and artsy movie — nor is it the glossy popcorn bling-a-thon that turned Asians into a worldwide smash. It’s more like the kind of standard Sundance-bound dramedy we’ve seen lots of times before, albeit with a charming cast and some sharp bits of commentary on race, identity and gender that come courtesy of screenwriter Adrian Tomine, who adapted his 2007 graphic novel of the same title. After premiering in the main competition at Park City, it will hit theaters via Roadside Attractions, but will probably attract more eyeballs on the small screen.
Divided into short chapters just like Tomine’s comic books, the film follows the snobbish and misanthropic Ben as he navigates a dead-end life in Berkeley, where he works at a neighborhood movie theater and lives in the swank apartment of the crazy rich Miko, who, like Ben, is Japanese American. Although the two have been together for some time, their relationship seems to be at a standstill, so when Miko takes off for an internship in New York, Ben sees this as a moment to go after the women he’s been fantasizing about — as evidenced by the abundant porn Miko discovers on his laptop.
The fact that the porn stars are all white women seems to pose more of a problem for Miko than the porn itself, but Ben doesn’t want to hear it. He’s a born contrarian who refuses to recognize that his race can be an issue at all — unless, that is, when it suits him to do so. But mostly he fails to hear what both Miko and his best friend, the snarky and girl-crazy Alice (Sherry Cola), have been trying to tell him all along: that the main problem with Ben is Ben.
It’s a familiar premise — the cynical antisocial dude who will go through some stuff and learn a valuable life lesson — and it tends to head in familiar directions as Ben, now semi-single, navigates the Bay Area dating scene, first hitting on an employee (Tavi Gevinson) and striking out before hooking up with a girl on the rebound (Debby Ryan) in a short-lived fling again tested by Ben’s contradictory feelings about race. Eventually he winds up in New York, reconnecting with bestie Alice and hoping, more out of desperation than any real love or devotion, to perhaps rekindle the flame with Miko.
That Ben is not the most likable of guys is not really the problem here — nobody wants their protagonists to be goody two-shoes and perfect bores. The problem is the overall blandness of the plotting and humor, which lacks the bite of some of the comedies Park himself has starred in (Fresh Off the Boat, The Interview) and the bark of Tomine’s terrific output as a graphic novelist (Summer Blonde, Killing and Dying), where characters are often guided by a lonely and desperate yearning for identity that can never be fulfilled. (The French director Jacques Audiard more successfully adapted several of Tomine’s works into the 2021 drama Paris, 13th District, an altogether darker movie than this.)
Park has put together a strong cast, and Min (The Umbrella Academy, After Yang) carries the lead role well, managing to give Ben some of the edge he needs while still making him a guy we’re supposed to root for. Maki and Cola are convincing as two women who see Ben quite differently and yet see through him as well, while a few good cameos — especially one by Veep’s hilarious Timothy Simons — round out the troupe.
The direction otherwise doesn’t have much to distinguish it, and here perhaps a word to the wise: There are a few scenes in Shortcomings where Ben watches classic films by the likes of Truffaut, Ozu and Cassavetes, longing for their greatness and even admitting at one point that he’s no Eric Rohmer, to cite another idol of his. The problem is that we, as viewers, also can’t help comparing what we’re watching to whatever Ben is admiring, and it makes the, um, shortcomings stand out even more.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Topic Studios, Tango Entertainment, Imminent Collision, Picture Films, Roadside Attractions
Cast: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavis Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, Timothy Simons
Director: Randall Park
Screenwriter: Adrian Tomine, based on his graphic novel
Producers: Margot Hand, Randall Park, Hieu Ho, Jennifer Berman, Howard Cohen, Eric D’Arbeloff, Michael Golamco
Executive producers: Ryan Heller, Michael Bloom, Jennifer Semler, Maria Zuckerman, Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Max Silva, Neil Shah, Ryan Paine, Daniel Hank, Adrian Tomine
Director of photography: Santiago Gonzalez
Production designer: Bill Boes
Costume designer: Ava Yuriko Hama
Editor: Robert Nassau
Composer: Gene Beck
Casting director: Nicole Abellera Hallman
Sales: UTA, WME
1 hour 32 minutes