Guys don’t have too many Breakup movies to choose from — Swingers, Old School, Forgetting Sarah Marshall; to name a few. We can now add ‘Shortcomings’ to that list.
The Feature Film Directorial Debut for Jimmy Woo actor Randall Park, Shortcomings tackles relationship comedy from a male point of view. And, we get a look at many of the stereotypes in the Asian American community; good and bad that don’t get talked about very often, even from within the community.
The Plot — Shortcomings
Ben does not impress very easily.
This happens especially when he’s ‘supposed’ to support things for the good of ‘the community.’ The Community, in this case being the Asian American community, and the thing he’s supposed to be supporting being a highly predictable Romantic Comedy movie, aimed at the Asian American community.
Surrounded by a theater full of people of Asian descent, Ben, played by ‘After Yang’s Justin H. Min, sits as the only unimpressed person. All around him, everyone looks ecstatically happy. Ben just sits there with a blank look on his face.
Afterwards, Ben and his longtime girlfriend, Miko, chat about the film with some friends in the lobby of the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. ‘Finally!’ There’s a film that’s ‘Ours’! Representation alone, seemingly being the only standard that matters in liking the movie.
Ben and Miko started dating six years ago; but Miko, played by Ally Maki, seems restless. When Ben’s eyes drift to the pretty white girl across the restaurant, Miko snaps at him. How could he look at HER? She looks nothing like ME!
The next day, Ben has Lunch with his ride or die friend Alice. Alice, played by Sherry Cola, gets him and he gets her. Even when Alice hooks up with woman after woman, and considers dropping out of school, Ben is there. Alice knows how unhappy Ben is, and with Miko wanting to take that Internship in New York? Maybe, he should let her go.
Besides, if Miko’s off sowing her wild oates in New York; maybe Ben can decide what he wants… And just maybe, it’s that new girl at work, Autumn… Autumn, played by Tavi Gevinson, the white girl who won’t stop flirting with her new boss.
The Good — Shortcomings
Representation Versus Pandering
The term ‘Asian American’ gets thrown around as a catchall term for a wide variety of peoples descended from many different countries. Korean culture differs from Japanese and Chinese cultures, and a new immigrant to the United States is vastly different from someone whose family has been here for 100 years. Yet, the term ‘Asian American’ often implies a monolithic culture that people from outside and inside the culture embrace.
Ben represents American culture and American values. His family has been here over 100 years, he only speaks English, and he doesn’t like the idea of lumping everyone into a homogenized group, just because they are of Asian descent.
Ben’s experienced discrimination because he’s a jerk, not because of where his ancestors moved here from. He sees Asian American characters in the movies being discriminated against as not reflecting reality, and just pandering to cultural stereotypes. Representation is one thing, representation by way of playing into stereotypes is something else.
As someone who is half-Asian American myself, with both sides (including my Caucasian side) having been here over 100 years; I find the discussion of ‘representation’ and how that manifests itself fascinating. Ben representing the anti-cultural stereotype argument is a breath of fresh air we don’t see often with Asian American characters. Ben arguing against blanket support for ALL Asian American movies is refreshing. He doesn’t like a film, so he doesn’t feel he should support a film he doesn’t like. What a concept!
However, many of the other Asian American characters shown are from families that immigrated to America much more recently. We see Alice’s parents trying to speak to Ben in Korean, even though he doesn’t speak any language other than English.
Characters whose origins are much more recently American may have a much harder time assimilating in American culture than Ben. These nuanced cultural conversations, and the very specific character voices behind them don’t get shown much in movies.
The conversations I found most entertaining were the dating issues. The idea of Asian American men dating white women as somehow being viewed as different from White Men being attracted to Asian American women. The idea that Ben saw one as normal, and the other as abnormal is odd, but not unheard of.
The quality of the writing in those scenes is a testament to both Director Randall Park, and writer/screenwriter Adrian Tomine.
Men Going Through Breakups
Most Romantic Comedies and Breakup Comedies tend to be told from a female point of view.
Whether this is just because women are better at talking about their emotions than men, or men just drink away their relationship/breakup sadness is beyond me. But, men have very few movies about breakups they can watch from a male point of view. Ironically, men don’t have much representation when it comes to Breakup movies! Lol…
Men can watch Swingers, Old School, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall to get over their breakup pain. But, the fact that I can do a Google search for ‘Men’s Breakup Movies’, and I don’t get many results past those three films shows just how few breakup movies have male representation. Ha! How does that sound??!! Lol…
Shortcomings does a great job dealing with men’s, well ‘Shortcomings’ when it comes to getting over a breakup. We see Ben’s anger, double standards, even his illogical thinking when it comes to getting dumped. Ben seems eager for Miko to leave town when he’s wanting to pursue Autumn; but when his life starts falling apart, he freaks out over Miko dating someone else.
Ben’s slow descent into anger and despair is brilliantly played by Justin H. Min. The relative confidence Ben feels erodes as his situation worsens, and even Ben’s logic starts to fade.
Kudos again, to Randall Park and Adrian Tomine for how well the character’s dialogue and stances are represented in the relationship conversations. These scenes could easily have fallen into lazy stereotypes with predictable outcomes. Instead we get well thought out conversations that reflect an emotional truth for our characters.
The man probably best known as ‘Asian Jim’ from that one episode of The Office is the perfect choice to Direct this Comedy about Asian American culture and men getting over breakups.
Randall Park also put on a fat suit to play Kim Jung Un in ‘The Interview’, and starred in the SitCom ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ more recently. As a natural born U.S. Citizen to Korean immigrant parents, Park is in the perfect position to make his feature film Directorial Debut with a film like Shortcomings. If only Netflix’s ‘Blockbuster’ had more of his Directorial mastery, the show may not have been cancelled after the first season.
Film is truly a collaborative art form, but as Director, Park brings some fun differences between recent and longtime immigrant populations; and the differences between Korean American and Japanese American cultures. And, even though the observations could easily have become more serious or eye-rollingly heavy handed; Randall Park keeps the film fun and light. I’d expect no less from ‘Asian Jim’!
The Review — Shortcomings
Ultimately, Shortcomings may be set in the Asian American community and be about relationship breakups. But, the film centers around the un-spoken un-happiness one man feels, and his inability to find his purpose in life. All the cultural stuff is setting and background, but not central to the story.
Justin H. Min follows up the critical praise from After Yang with a dynamic performance in a leading role in this hilarious Comedy, also from A24. Our two female leads, Ally Maki and Sherry Cola have long filmographies going back over a decade, but Shortcomings marks the biggest roles either has had in a project of this size. The combination of all three performers results in such a natural chemistry; you can see and feel the slightest shift in tone from Comedy to Drama and scene to scene.
Many better known Asian American actors and actresses fill out smaller roles, like Ronnie Chieng, Jacob Batalon, Mike Cabellon, Stephanie Hsu, and even Director Randall Park. But, the bulk of the film’s success lies on the shoulders of Min, Maki, and Cola.
Randall Park does a great job handling complex storylines and emotions, without oversimplifying on one side or dwelling too long on the other. He’s not afraid to poke fun at cultural expectations on one hand, or shy away from personal responsibility for characters on the other.
Shortcomings is a ton of fun, and surprisingly deep emotionally for a Comedy about relationship breakups. Worth the watch!
Four and a Half Stars out of Five.