The best compliment I can pay to Randall Park’s Shortcomings is that I would have loved this movie in college. The 20-year-old me would have appreciated the lovesick angst of its central character, an Asian-American film-school dropout named Ben (Justin H. Min) who works at a struggling Berkeley art-house cinema and binges Criterion DVDs at night while trying to reconcile the fact that every woman around him is evolving while he’s stuck in neutral.
I would have basked in its coastal-elite settings, its cast of self-identified queers and oddballs and especially its intellectual patina. I would have been taken in by all of these factors, unaware of how self-contained and facile and pretentious it all tracks. Ironically, for a movie that critiques Asian fetishism, Shortcomings too often conjures Woody Allen at his most insufferable.
Shortcomings, adapted by Adrian Tomine from his celebrated 2007 graphic novel of the same name, opens with a bit of cheek: a scene from a film within the film, a glossy parody of Crazy Rich Asians in which Stephanie Hsu faces overt and absurd discrimination when she tries to book a penthouse suite in a luxury hotel, only to turn the tables seconds later when her husband, played by Ronny Chieng, buys the hotel chain and transforms its racist clerk into a sniveling lapdog.
The moment plays well as a satire on the current state of Asian-American pop cinema as an enclave of hollow glamour detached from the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of Asians living in the United States. As someone who couldn’t make it through 30 minutes of Crazy Rich Asians, I take Tomine’s point.
The problem soon arises that Shortcomings isn’t different enough from the spectacle it lampoons. Characters tend to fit neatly into proscribed rom-com boxes. Sherry Cola plays Alice, Ben’s best friend, the salty-tongued lesbian who tells it like it is. Tomine and Park resurrect a hoary old archetype from the cinema of the Aughts, the manic pixie dreamgirl, in the form of Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), who takes a job at Ben’s movie theater and moonlights as an avant-garde performance artist a la Lydia Lunch; her latest visual-art project is a series of Polaroids of her toilet after her morning urination, as a “comment on consumerism.” Much of the comedy here deserves to be bracketed in quote marks.
But this is the rarefied world — the only world — in which Shortcomings operates. Hyper-articulate and quick-witted, everybody is either a loquacious cinephile or a Latin American Marxist scholar or an unorthodox fashion designer. When Sasha (Debby Ryan), the aforementioned Marxist academic, remarks in a bookstore that “I’m hermetically sealed in this bubble,” she could be speaking for the movie at large.
Poor Ally Maki is saddled with the film’s most pragmatic and thankless part, a real person in a cast of sitcom-adjacent screwballs. She plays Miko, Ben’s girlfriend at the outset of Shortcomings, who, unlike her partner, can see that their relationship is wilting, and who leaves ostensibly for a three-month film internship in New York for some much-needed time apart. The problem, Miko asserts, stems from Ben’s increasing fixation on blond-haired, blue-eyed white women, who the filmmakers dutifully supply to their protagonist.
Shortcomings has plenty to say about society’s conditional acceptance of Caucasian/Asian-American couplings, about stubborn double standards between Asian men and women, about cultural biases and misappropriations. But even its most cogent observations derive from schematic contrivances — like Miko’s discovery of Ben’s porn preferences, which he conveniently leaves open on his laptop — that may well have played better in comic-book panels than on the added dimension of the big screen.
The shortcomings of Shortcomings might not be as tortured as the movie-within-the-movie that opens the film, but the two share more DNA than their sophisticated creators would likely be willing to admit.
SHORTCOMINGS. Director: Randall Park; Cast: Justin H. Min, Ally Maki, Sherry Cola, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno, Timothy Simons; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Opens Friday at Movies of Delray, Cinemark Boca Raton, AMC Pompano Beach, Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, and other area theaters.