Randall Park’s Shortcomings is an anti-rom-com and direct response to Crazy Rich Asians

3 stars out of 5

On paper, everything about Shortcomings, the directorial debut by actor Randall Park, should work. The dialogue is clever, the performers are sharp and the comedy (mostly) hits. The movie offers insight into the narcissist millennial mindset. Its characters are not aspirational but vibrant portraits of some of the worst people in your friend group. The charisma of the film’s leads can only slightly soften the blow of how obnoxious and self-centred the main characters are. In many ways, Shortcomings is the anti-rom-com we’ve been waiting for. 

Ben (Justin H. Min) works at a local failing arthouse cinema, and his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) works at a local Asian American film festival. They’re barely in love, more like roommates who occasionally fuck. They get on each other’s nerves and reinforce bad habits. They fight when Miko is offered an internship in New York City for three months. Ben doesn’t know if he should fight to make her stay, risking squashing her dreams or letting her go easily, proving to her he doesn’t care about her. Miko leaves, and they both take a “break” from the relationship.

Shortcomings (in theatres now)

The film opens with a parody of Crazy Rich Asians. Ben, a snob who spends most of his evenings watching classics like Les 400 Coups, scoffs at it. Miko and her colleagues at the Asian American film festival praise the movie as a win for representation and its success as an opportunity to open more doors for Asian American filmmakers. Ben, forever the cynic, sees it as a pointless, meaningless fluff. 

Shortcomings often acts as a direct response to Crazy Rich Asians. It foregoes wealth and excess for characters barely squeaking by. Romance is replaced by horndog desire. Characters cheat and lie; the fantasy of the perfect immigrant is dispelled and obliterated. Ben, mainly, has limited ambition and curiosity. He wants the hot wife girlfriend and doesn’t see why that might be mildly offensive to his long-time girlfriend or his best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), a sassy and sexually ravenous lesbian. He’s built in the Woody Allen mindset, and the comedy is often rooted in his inability to see past his experiences and immediate carnal desires. 

Often with dialogue-heavy films, the common criticism lobbed by critics is that it “feels like a stageplay.” In this case, the film’s main flaw is that it feels like an “American Independent Film.” We’re not talking about the heyday of Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith or even Tarantino’s independent filmmaking style; we’re talking middle-of-the-road Sundance fodder. The film’s aesthetic sensibility can only be described as Hollywood lite, a simulacrum of much higher budgeted mid-budget studio productions that don’t quite hit the mark. The film lacks any texture or aesthetic identity. It ends up feeling cheap, but not in a way that’s compelling. Rather than enhance the film’s strengths, it only drags it down. 

Part of this Hollywood lite aesthetic also wiggles its way into the screenplay. Despite ending on a relatively good gag at Ben’s expense, the film’s final act principally serves as a redemption arc for his character. Ben realizes he’s been a dick and tries to take some accountability for his actions – he even finds a way to see a sliver of hope in the big Blockbuster extravaganza he trashed at the film’s opening. Yet, the whole thing feels so sugarcoated and safe, leaving an even worse impression than his date with his beautiful blonde employee who takes photos of her toilet every morning. 

When Shortcomings is good, it’s very good, but a lack of real insight hampers it. Park demonstrates an astute direction of comedy and actors but lacks the touch to drive it home. As far as actor-turned-director films, it’s undoubtedly one of the best. Though ultimately frustrating in its inability to commit to the bit, the movie has much to love. ■

Shortcomings (directed by Randall Park)

Shortcomings opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 4.

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