A trio of young Bay Area urbanites navigate a range of interpersonal relationships while traversing the country in search of the ideal connection.
“I reviewed your application, Mrs Wong,” a hotel manager says to the elegantly dressed Mrs Wong (Stephanie Hsu) in an impressive lobby, before continuing “and I have to say… me no likey.” He rips up her paperwork as Mrs Wong smiles and walks over to her husband (Ronnie Chieng), who makes a phone call. The couple buy the hotel and ride the elevator to the penthouse before the camera zooms outside, just as fireworks explode over the title “Just the Beginning.” As the cinema erupts in applause, Ben (Justin H. Min) stares in disbelief at the screen. This stark transition from glossy rom-com, parodying Crazy Rich Asians (2018), is wonderfully edited and gets the audience primed for the thematic core of Shortcomings, which is almost the antithesis of that box office hit.
The directorial debut of actor Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat) is about three young urbanites who struggle with their interpersonal relationships and search for love in a story that spans the US coasts, from San Francisco to New York City. Adapted by Adrian Tomine from his own 2007 graphic novel, Shortcomings brings audiences into the present day, expanding on his important discussions of representation in the media and the real humanity at the centre of everyone’s lives.
As Ben and his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), leave the screening of “Just the Beginning,” he rips into the film, saying he doesn’t want to be pressured into liking a film just because of representation. When Miko pushes back, Ben doubles down, bemoaning the film not having “real humans.” Shortcomings’ bold dissection of modern pop culture and examination of representation in stories that matter to be told is a propelling force, grabbing our attention and never letting go. While much of the dialogue remains the same from Tomine’s original work, the real magic comes from the actors breathing life into the words.
Justin H. Min (After Yang) delivers a career-best performance as Ben Tanaka, the beating, yet dark heart of the movie, with unwavering boldness. Ben is cold, distant, mean, static, selfish, and a liar. He calls Miko “crazy” and checks out white girls, making her feel like he’s settling for second-best. He makes crude jokes in front of his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) and her new girlfriend and seems determined to self-sabotage at every turn, making it hard for us to root for him. But Min’s portrayal is densely layered, his subtle mannerisms pulling at the deeper sadness that torments his selfishness in his interpersonal relationships. There are shades of a kindhearted person in there we only get to see briefly. When Alice asks Ben to pretend to be her boyfriend, in order to appease her old-fashioned parents, or when she asks him to leave work to comfort her after getting kicked out of school, Ben is present. Min plays the character’s duality well, or else we wouldn’t be able to buy into the horror of his actions.
Ally Maki and Sherry Cola are both brilliant in their shared screen time with Ben. Maki, as Ben’s more-than-patient girlfriend, propels the emotion of the story forward, driving Ben crazy from start to finish. Cola is the hilarious best friend, the only positive relationship that Ben seems to care about, yet still manages to mess up in his own ways. The actress deftly weaves between being the funniest person on the screen to a flawed character trying to find love in her own way. While this is Ben’s movie, Miko and Alice are just as human as him, shortcomings and all.
As strong as the main cast is, the supporting players steal the show. Debby Ryan as Sasha, the white girl Ben has a fling with, delivers a powerful final line that sets Ben on a journey to New York; Tavi Gevinson is also hilarious as the burgeoning modern artist Ben falls for; Sonoya Mizuno is great as the academic stronghearted woman Alice falls for and tells Ben how she really feels; and Jacob Batalon (Spider-Man: No Way Home) is an opportunistic movie theatre employee with a hilarious fourth-wall-breaking joke. Even director Park has a fun cameo as a friendly waiter to whom Alice tells Ben’s whole life story. And Timothy Simons (Veep) has the best cameo as an exceptionally kind, Japanese-speaking brand designer whose few minutes of screen time are all too short but effortlessly hilarious and vital to the emotional climax of the film.
Shortcomings delivers on the promise it makes in Ben’s review of the Crazy Rich Asians parody. The characters are richly human. Often annoyingly so. Their shortcomings are a deep hubris that takes real effort to grow from. Alice is living under the influence of her parents’ expectations, trying to find a woman she truly cares for. Miko is insecure, pulling strings to feel wanted in life. And Ben is the worst of them all. His incessant selfishness, fear of change, and crude jokes make it so hard to root for him. But they make it work. We are treated to a rich examination of the true shortcomings that not everyone sees on film. It isn’t just a representation of Asians as humans, it’s a representation of people struggling with change, depression, and loneliness.
For some, they may not be able to see past Ben’s moral compass. It’s a real gamble for the filmmakers to showcase such stark dynamics in a protagonist. It falls on Min to portray Ben as real as he can.
But as good as the character work is, author Tomine’s lack of experience writing screenplays holds the film back. Too often scenes take place inside diners, and the repetitiveness of some scenes makes the film feel static at times. As for the plot, the holes the characters dig for themselves become stale after a while. We see their shortcomings, we don’t need a constant reminder of their need for growth.
Randall Park makes the most of everything in his first outing as director, relying on his cast to carry the weight of the film. Park knows how to stage things. In an early scene, Ben and Miko fight about his porn habits, his interest in white women, and the societal beauty standards that dictate their lives… as Miko charges into the bedroom, leaving Ben in the hallway. Park frames each acting on their own, yelling at no one, with a wall separating them… before the door shuts Ben out. Subtly, we know it’s too late for them, that the argument is falling on deaf ears.
Shortcomings pushes the limit over how long we can root for a character before we give up on them. At every turn, Ben does something wrong, says something ugly, and pushes people away… but the climax is a true revelation; a moment of reflection that all the humour, all the heartbreak, and all the shortcomings have led to.
USA | 2023 | 92 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Randall Park.
writer: Adrian Tomine (based on his own novel).
starring: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon & Timothy Simons.