EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like Shortcomings might not exist.
Many romantic comedies skew heavily to presenting the female perspective. Most of those movies are built to follow a woman’s plight to get away from the wrong partner and find the right one. We side with her, cheer on her actions, and sneer at the suitors. In a unique way, Shortcomings is different. This one stays on the bad partner and, for that, it has a little extra engrossment going for it.
Shortcomings focuses on Ben Tanaka, played by After Yang breakout Justin H. Min. He’s the head manager of an under-attended arthouse theater in Berkeley, California alongside fellow movie dorks Gene and Lamont (Spider-Man‘s guy-in-the-chair Jacob Batalan and TikToker Scott Seiss). Ben brings his auteur tastes home to his long-time significant other Miko Hayashi (Ally Maki of TV’s Wrecked), who works for a local Asian film festival. His very personal idea of a good night is being entranced on his couch alone by a landmark film from The Criterion Collection.
If you ever needed to envision a walking and talking embodiment of a film snob, look no further than Ben. Shortcomings introduces him with Miko attending the premiere of an Asian-directed Hollywood rom-com caper starring (in cameos) Everything Everywhere All at Once Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu and stand-up comedian Ronny Chieng. The movie is clearly an easy-and-breezy crowd pleaser, but Ben verbally bashes its triteness and the notion of mainstream success opening doors for diverse filmmakers. Instead, he sees garish clichés and American pandering, mopes about it, and pisses on the joy others have for it.
From that opening scene onward, Ben’s self-centered manner is on full display. If Shortcomings followed a typical romantic comedy’s route, Miko and Ben’s gay best friend Alice, played by Joy Ride’s Sherry Cola, would be in charge of a path to crack the whip and correct his sh*tty attitude. Alas, this feature directorial debut of popular actor Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat) is anything but typical.
As it turns out, Ben is a full-time asshole with an inherently bad personality. He devalues Miko and her career trajectory and eyes other women, including a new millennial artist hired at the theater (Tavi Gevinson of Gossip Girl) and a tempting bisexual free spirit (Insatiable’s Debby Ryan). Ben masterfully and heinously will take moments of his obvious mistakes, fluster wildly, and twist the arguments back on Miko, Alice, or anyone else other than himself. Contrition never comes out of the young man for a second. He is really a piece of work.
When Miko has had enough, she pursues a job promotion to New York City and leaves their relationship on a break. Ben is now left to his own devices to fend for himself with only Alice as a source of recourse. We can tell he’s going to crack. Sure enough, Ben and his schemes only get worse, and Shortcomings follows him down his collapse until he musters the misguided courage to go to New York City and track down a liberated and happier Miko.
Shortcomings is based on the graphic novel series of the same name created by Adrian Tomine, a fourth-generation Japanese American. The cartoonist was granted the excellent chance to adapt his own work into the screenplay for this live-action film that premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Following the likes of I Kill Giants, Ghost World, and Sin City, more movies, big and small, based on comics or graphic novels should allow and welcome that kind of source expertise and collaboration.
The movie retains much of Tomine’s perspective on Asian-American life in California. The overarching romantic and personal challenges occurring in Shortcomings carry an extra layer of cultural topicality. The slice-of-life settings and community interactions of these well-adjusted people carry a slant of social commentary presenting their urban and educated place in the country’s melting pot. Thanks to Ben’s bluntness, this exploration in Shortcomings is frank, edgy, and often quite funny.
Randall Park (be ready for his own cameo appearance) strolls into Tominie’s world and turns Shortcomings into a dextrous film. He covers a good bit of narrative length in a short amount of running time, not unlike Richard Linklater where the dialogue moves with the characters occupying their spaces. None of the episodic scenarios overstay their welcome in the script and are stitched together nicely with tight editing from Robert Nassau (The Big Sick) and an instrumental score from Gene Beck (Cowboys) to help tone all the wallowing.
That’s the thing. Can you invest in a movie like Shortcomings with little to no improvement in the asshole lead? Ben’s antiquated values, emotional unavailability, warped fetishism, borderline toxic immaturity, and weaponized pity are not a fun hang, even when Alice can rub some of those qualities back in his face for little morsels of temporary comeuppance. Instead of a redemptive arc, Shortcomings gauges the level of repairs needed for the Ben character and plants intrigue on if enough fixes can be pulled off while the good woman Miko is off-screen.
With this tug-of-war going on between downer failure and perky possibilities, Shortcomings is an stellar showcase for its cast of lively performers. Sherry Cola has doubled her range of playing the sarcastic semi-bad influence bestie for the second film this summer after Joy Ride. Her levity is very welcome, but this is Justin H. Min’s show. After playing a robot in the critically-acclaimed After Yang, this is his second plum part in a row and one that demands attention. Min really gets to stomp around and try on some dominance. Moreover, he has the tough task of delivering all those monstrous traits listed in Lesson #4 and make them interesting enough in one character to want to see the potential romance through. He and Park pull off showing realism in a losing tale.