Shortcomings is one of those quirky indie comedies about a jerk trying to get their life together. These were very prevalent in the late 90s/early 2000s and, at times, this feels like it would have fit right in during that period. The feature-length directorial debut of actor Randall Park, it is derivative and the protagonist can be quite obnoxious. Yet the actors are charming, the screenplay is frequently funny and Park does a solid job of balancing the comedic and dramatic beats. It may not be a particularly fresh take on the genre, but it is a generally amusing one. Plus, at only 86 minutes (not including the end credits), it never wears out its welcome.
Though the main characters are Asian and they talk a lot about stereotypes, prejudices and sexual attractions, the movie doesn’t go super deep with that stuff. The topics could be anything, so long as it causes the characters to argue. Those subjects add some interest to a few conversations, since you don’t hear them discussed much onscreen, even in a humorous way. However, they really just give the characters something to rant about. At least it is a different (metaphorical) soundtrack to the usual complaining about love, sex and being unhappy with your life.
Ben is extremely unhappy with his life. A film school dropout turned aspiring screenwriter who never writes, he runs a failing art theater in Berkeley and has disdain for nearly everyone he encounters. He is dating Miko, who is tiring of Ben’s self-hatred and fears that he isn’t into her anymore because he is mostly attracted to white girls. Ben’s only friend is Alice, who is also aimless and almost as misanthropic as he is. The story follows Ben as he repeatedly screws up while trying to find his way.
Since Ben works at a movie theater, the cinema is very important to him. But only GREAT CINEMA, like Truffaut, Ozu and Cassavettes, whose work we see him watching at home. He has no respect for the mainstream, spending the opening scene insulting anyone who could be satisfied by a formula romcom. This mean-spirited snobbery informs his personality, though the cinema stuff is, again, merely background noise. I found it amusing (due to my own film snobbery), yet it isn’t actually necessary to the story. The screenplay (by Adrian Tomine, adapted from his 2007 graphic novel) puts a lot in for color, without making most of that material vital to the plot.
It probably sounds like I didn’t enjoy this much, but it is reasonably entertaining. In addition to being overly cynical, angry, self-absorbed and socially awkward, Ben is witty and intelligent. The dialogue tends to be kind of circular. Still, the delivery and comic timing of the actors keep it enjoyable. Justin H. Min, as Ben, and Sherry Cola, as Alice, have excellent chemistry together. It is funny because, despite being just as toxic as Ben is, Alice is way more likable. People want to be around her, while she seems to be the only person who Ben doesn’t chase off.
Shortcomings continues the recent trend of getting more Asian-Americans both behind the camera and in starring roles in front of it. This is hopefully just the start of Randall Park’s directorial career. Sherry Cola, who shines here, was so good in last month’s Joy Ride, which also focused on Asian-Americans. Shortcomings has its flaws. It isn’t a superior “quirky indie comedy about a jerk trying to get his life together.” Spending an hour-and-a-half with Ben can be exhausting. Still, the comedy hits its mark. This is a helpful reminder that representation is equally great for finding talent in places that major Hollywood movies don’t usually look.
3¼ out of 5
Justin H. Min as Ben
Sherry Cola as Alice
Ally Maki as Miko
Debby Ryan as Sasha
Tavi Gevinson as Autumn
Directed by Randall Park
Written by Adrian Tomine