Too bad this Netflix romcom plays it so safe

Ali Wong and Randall Park star in Always Be My Maybe.

It’s undeniable that the advent of streaming has changed the way movie studios do business. They’re no longer in the risk-taking, gambling business — sure things are the only projects that interest them. That has opened it up for streaming networks like Netflix to corner the market on genres that are no longer considered viable by the big dogs, like seemingly every form of comedy.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: if you’re a comedic star on the up-and-up, you’re going to have to prove your mettle by starring in an assembly-line rom-com (or sitcom, though that particular branch in the road is less popular these days) tailored to your particular strengths. There is no way around this; it is a clause in the contract everyone signs in blood when they decide to pursue comedy.

The good news is that Always Be My Maybe is a vehicle for stand-up comedian Ali Wong and actor Randall Park, who co-wrote the screenplay. It’s hard to find a more appropriate vehicle for your own strengths as a performer than your own self, and Wong and Park have both been generally underserved by material written by others thus far in their careers.

The bad news is Always Be My Maybe adheres to an impossibly rigid idea of what a rom-com is by nearly any standard. Every advance it makes by wrestling the genre away from the immaculate mayonnaise grip of Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock and Anna Kendrick types is severely hampered by the fact that it plays by the rules with impressive determination.

Marcus Kim (Park) and Sasha Tran (Wong) grew up next door to each other in pre-gentrification San Francisco, perpetually platonic best friends who shared every moment and activity. When Marcus’s mother dies towards the end of high school, however, they grow closer together and, one fateful night, sleep together. This results in a rift in their relationship that’s only resolved 16 years later when Sasha, now a celebrity chef with a billionaire fiancé (Daniel Dae Kim) and restaurant empire, accidentally hires Marcus and his father (James Saito) to install new air conditioning in the house she’s renting while she prepares to open a new restaurant in town. Marcus and Sasha now exist at diametrical opposites of the social spectrum: she’s rich and famous, he still lives with his father and attempts to get the hip hop band he founded in high school off the ground… but their decades-long friendship turns out to be stronger than the gap in their social standing.

Always Be My Maybe is very much ensconced in the Bay Area where Wong grew up. It deals directly with the crunchy, multicultural liberal oasis it once was — the soundtrack mainly consists of Bay Area hip-hop jams — and the tech-obsessed upper-middle-class hipster wasteland it has turned into. (Ironically, the majority of the film was in fact shot in Vancouver.) While it deals very much with the traditions of growing up Asian-American, it isn’t explicitly about that. In fact, it barely comes up, precisely because its characters exist in a multicultural community. Obviously, I can’t speak for the Asian-American population and judge how accurate this portrayal is, but it is refreshing for a rom-com to have prominent parent characters that aren’t just automatically played by some combination of Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Dianne Wiest and James Brolin.

What Always Be My Maybe makes abundantly clear is that the filmmakers see the romantic comedy as an extremely coded genre, much like a slasher film or a 12-bar-blues. A rom-com must have a set amount of elements to even be considered one, it seems; Always Be My Maybe plays it safe and throws every single one of them in. It has the sassy assistant / best friend (played by Michelle Buteau) and the sensitive-bro BFF (played by Karan Soni). It has the I’ve-always-had-my-doubts-about-her girlfriend (played by Vivian Bang) and the too-good-to-be-true romantic rival (a surprise cameo!) and the declaration of love from a balcony and the silly-but-endearing comedic songs and the scene at a kids’ outdoor birthday party (a now-crucial element, it seems) and the advice from a father figure and the bumpy third act where no one knows what they truly want and so on and so forth.

In that sense, the measure of Always Be My Maybe is not what it does but how it does it. The leads are extremely appealing and have palpable chemistry, which helps work through some of the dopier bits (grown adults playing their teenage selves will never not be dumb — PEN15 notwithstanding). The screenplay has a specificity to it that doesn’t really have any precedence, but the film’s broadest strokes are more than familiar. Part of the struggle for representation argues for the rights of all people to see themselves reflected in popular cultural products – not just original and groundbreaking ones. The self-consciousness with which Always Be My Maybe tackles the artificial tropes of the rom-com and its overtly sitcomish treatment means that it never quite transcends its roots as a “we’re doing this thing, really, truly we are, the exact thing you’re picturing” type of project, but as far as those things go, it’s a genial and entertaining example. ■

Always Be My Maybe is on Netflix as of Friday, May 31. Watch the trailer here: