Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min) is our negative, pretentious, hipster, movie-loving protagonist in Randall Park‘s feature debut Shortcomings. Based on Adrian Tomine‘s graphic novel of the same name, the film follows Ben’s own struggle after he gets dumped by his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), who abruptly moves to New York. While there is certainly a laundry list of reasons why Miko bolts, with Ben’s personality probably being one of them, one of the reasons the film makes clear is the fact that Ben seems to be more physically attracted to white women over Asian women. We watch as the other Asian Americans around Ben criticize him for his preference, and it clearly chafes at him even if he can’t really deny it.
The film also calls out the movement to diversify films and Ben’s own negative opinions about movies that he sees as pandering to a crowd based solely around representation. In an example of this, the film opens with a fake movie, one that is a clear parody of the infamously successful Crazy Rich Asians. When the credits roll, and we watch Ronnie Chieng and Stephanie Hsu get in the elevator of the hotel that they now own after being rejected by the manager moments before, the theater (full of mainly Asian Americans) gets on their feet to applaud. From an audience’s perspective, the hokey dialogue from the parody mixed with the effusive pride the characters have for a movie that might just be Not Good is a clear call out, and Ben makes note of it. Yes, he’s not entirely wrong with his criticism of the movie, but his pessimism grates at Miko, who sees the film how many people see it: a fun romp and a step in the right direction for representation.
The opening scene sets up Ben’s relationship with his identity and race perfectly, and the use of meta-humor and parody makes it one of the funnier scenes of the film. However, Park’s first venture as a feature film director ultimately doesn’t stand out in the way that it needs to. Tonally, it is light and comedic, which feels on brand for Park. He continues to lean into meta-humor throughout the film, but when he wants to dip into drama, it doesn’t really have the same impact. While Park injects his own joie de vivre to his on-screen performances as an actor, there is a distinct lackluster quality to Shortcomings in its biggest moments. It feels, at times, generic. The story, penned by Tomine, still holds the same feelings for me as the graphic novel, which is to say that at least they provoke thought, but Park’s own style feels far from refined.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to admire about Shortcomings. The performances speak to the witty comedic timing of its actors. Specifically, Sherry Cola as Ben’s lesbian best friend Alice has great chemistry with Min as Ben. Alice starts the film closeted to her parents but grows through the span of the film to embrace love. Considering that Ben is very easy to dislike, it’s still not hard to imagine why Ben and Alice have been friends for so long. Although he is toxic with Miko and the other women he’s pursuing romantically, Ben’s most wholesome relationship is with Alice and the two share a sibling-like bond. Min’s own performance as Ben balances the nuances of the character, able to pull him back just shy of being an outright asshole, while still maintaining the prickly personality that is at the heart of the character.
It’s difficult to view Tomine’s story through an unbiased lens given my own identity as an Asian American woman. The conversations had between Ben and Miko or Ben and Alice are ones that I’ve had countless times before. In those conversations, the “Ben” of our stories is a villain-type figure. He’s the guy who seems to loathe dating Asian women, rolls his eyes at the idea of representation because he views it as performative and meaningless, and then becomes outraged when an Asian woman dates outside the race. He’s going to mansplain to you, he’ll definitely say, “Well actually,” and has a constant string of girlfriends who essentially look like the same generic white girl. Park and Tomine do manage to somehow turn a villain figure into someone a bit more sympathetic, rounding out his corners.
Shortcomings, like the original novel, offers little new in terms of insight into characters like Ben, simply acknowledging that there are men like Ben out there, who have aspects of self-loathing when it comes to their feelings about race. Ironically, however, Ben’s existence as a character offers something that Ben himself might recoil at the idea of: He offers representation. He is, indeed, an unconventional Asian character, and his existence offers a look into a discussion that is common not only within the Asian American community but in many communities of color. It’s not sharp or biting commentary, in fact, it feels a bit defanged. But it reveals conversations I’ve had since I’ve been old enough to date, perhaps offering an outsider a look into a debate that has been raging for generations.
Shortcomings is in theaters now.