'Shortcomings' review: Messy, rock-bottom characters make Randall Park's comedy

Shortcomings opens with a movie in a movie. We meet Mrs. Wong (Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s Stephanie Hsu), a woman in a fancy yellow gown, just as her application for a penthouse apartment gets rejected. Seconds later, her suit-wearing husband (M3GAN‘s Ronny Chieng) buys the entire building, prompting the two to kiss passionately in the elevator up to their new luxury home. Fireworks erupt, fairy tale music swells, and a title card proclaims that this is “just the beginning…”

Cut to an audience of rapturous viewers at the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. Everyone leaps to give a standing ovation except one disdainful man. That man is Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min), and he will be our misanthropic guide through Randall Park’s hilarious feature directorial debut, based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine.

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While everyone around Ben gushes about the film, acknowledging that it’s “a little glossy, but it’s ours,” he can only muster up the weak statement that it was “quite an event.” As he later tells his girlfriend and festival organizer Miko (Ally Maki), he couldn’t stand the “garish, mainstream” romantic comedy they just sat through, which, yes, bears a pointed resemblance to Crazy Rich Asians. Is it really a win for Asian American representation if this is the movie the community chooses to celebrate?

Ben — a struggling filmmaker himself as well as a certified film bro — would much rather Asian characters in movies have flaws, like himself and everyone he knows. It’s a bit of a meta ask, as Shortcomings, itself an “event” of Asian American representation, is all too happy to oblige. Its characters are messy, selfish, and often just inches away from hitting rock bottom, and none are more so than Ben. And herein lies one of Shortcomings‘ most intriguing tensions: Ben is so determined to preach about how much he wants to see flawed characters, but he has absolutely no intention of addressing his own failings.

Shortcomings’ Ben is a jerk who won’t acknowledge his flaws — and you can’t look away.

A man and woman in a crowded movie theater lobby.

Ally Maki and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings.”
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

In Shortcomings‘ opening minutes, Park and Tomine, who wrote the screenplay, hit us with Ben’s many, many red flags. For one, he can’t even pretend to be interested in the film or in Miko’s work at the festival. As his and Miko’s banter about representation escalates to an all-out argument, he resorts to belittling her and calling her crazy. Later, we learn that Ben has a type, and that type is “blonde white women.” His unwillingness to even discuss this with Miko or understand why it might put a strain on her makes it crystal clear that this relationship is on the rocks, and has been for a while.

So when Miko gets an internship opportunity in New York, the distance between her and Ben may be just what they need. They decide they’re taking a break — a term almost strategic in its open-endedness. When left to his own devices, Ben immediately takes their separation as a pass to pursue white women like movie theater employee Autumn (Tavi Gevinson) and grad student Sasha (Debby Ryan). The results are often deeply awkward, including feigned appreciation of overly edgy art and conversations about fetishism and public perceptions of interracial relationships. Shortcomings steers away from any clear resolutions on these issues, content to let the discussions speak for themselves.

But the common thread in all these conversations is Ben, who remains a messy, often hypocritical lead whether he’s attempting an ill-advised hookup or hanging out with his best friend Alice (Joy Ride‘s Sherry Cola). While he is certainly not a “likable” main character, you just can’t look away from him. Min’s portrayal of Ben’s own brand of assholery is proof of Shortcomings‘ hyper-specific characterization, something we see in Alice as well. And as much as we may disagree with these characters’ actions, we immediately recognize just how real they are, and in that way, we’re able to root for them to better themselves.

After a shaky start, Shortcomings finds its way.

A man and woman look out the window of a coffee shop with a blue brick exterior.

Sherry Cola and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings.”
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Shortcomings takes several scenes to solidify its rhythm and tone, but once it does, you’re in for a slice-of-life comedy that prefers understated, wince-worthy jokes to out-there laugh riots. For the most part, Tomine’s dialogue is very natural, helping solidify the film’s lived-in feel. There’s no question that Shortcomings‘ best scenes are between Ben and Alice: Min and Cola volley dialogue in such an easy way that there’s no doubt these are two kindred spirits. Shortcomings especially picks up momentum in the third act, when an unexpected quest unites them in strange circumstances.

The movie’s opening suggests that Miko is the third point in Shortcomings‘ trio of main characters, but unfortunately, she doesn’t get the same treatment or level of specificity as Ben or Alice. Part of this is by design: She’s off in New York for most of the film, while the action remains in the Bay Area. Yet in her absence, she becomes a blank canvas for Ben’s own anxieties and fear of change, and any later argument from her, delivered passionately by Maki, reads more as a life lesson for Ben.

Despite this weakness in characterization, Shortcomings remains an otherwise strong feature directorial debut for Park. If he were to watch Shortcomings, Ben may not necessarily like what it has to say about him. However, he wouldn’t be able to deny that its characters have fascinating flaws — and that winds up being the film’s superpower.

Shortcomings is now streaming on Netflix.

UPDATE: Aug. 4, 2023, 9:47 a.m. EDT Shortcomings was reviewed out of the Tribeca Film Festival on June 11, 2023.

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