Shortcomings Review – Randall Park’s Contemporary Comedy is Magnificently Funny

We are all imperfect beings. We all have our negative peccadillos, our bad days, our petty resentments, our self-doubt, our pretentions. In Randall Park’s Shortcomings based on Adrian Tomie’s graphic novel of the same name and written by Tomie, Ben (Justin H. Min) has a few more flaws than the average underachiever. He’s a failed filmmaker (Berkeley Arts college dropout and unable to write his script) who manages an indie cinema and deliberately dunks on mainstream cinema. The film, broken up into chapters, starts with FLAWS in which Ben is watching a preview of a Crazy Rich Asians style blockbuster (replete with cameos from Stephanie Hsu and Ronny Chieng) with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) who is working with the film in a professional capacity. He can barely hide his contempt for the movie “It’s depressing to see people losing their minds over representation or something,” which leads to yet another argument with Miko – one of seemingly dozens where Ben does some fairly classic gaslighting moves.

Ben is hardly what you’d call a “supportive guy” – his best friend, Alice (a once again brilliant Sherry Cola) points that out more than once. Ben refuses to acknowledge that being of Asian heritage has in any manner really informed his life view, yet he’s well known for wanting to date white women and resents Miko becoming more politically minded. Alice is a lesbian, closeted with her Korean family, and puts up with Ben’s sad-sack antics and deliberate misanthropy because she’s still not at a point where she feels grown up and is permanently stuck in a post-grad program that is possibly leading nowhere.

Miko informs Ben that she has been awarded a three-month internship with the Asian American Independent Film Institute internship in NYC. Ben can’t imagine why anyone would want to leave the Bay Area and once again proves he is not the “supportive” type. His immediate reaction is to tell Miko he’s not moving to New York; her response is she didn’t ask him to. There is a breakup on the horizon, but Ben is too self-involved to notice it. Miko leaves and suggests that they take the time while she is away as a “break” although it is never made overt what that really means. Ben takes it literally for him, in that he will pursue other women, but of course when the shoe is on the other foot that’s a different story.

His first new interest is Autumn (Tavi Gevinson) a new usher at the cinema he manages. Watch for some excellent comic performances by Jacob Batalon as Gene and Scott Seiss as Lamont, the other employees at the cinema. Autumn is considerably younger than Ben and is a “performance artist/installation artist/post-punk political provocateur” and Ben feigns interest in her frankly awful work (screaming atonal music, daily photographs of her morning urination she calls ‘Episstemology’) because he just wants to sleep with her. When Autumn proves to be not interested in Ben, he goes along to a queer party with Alice where he meets Sasha (Debby Ryan) a bisexual woman who has just broken up with her girlfriend.

SASHA forms the title of the second chapter. Perhaps this is where Ben reveals his biggest flaws. Although there is chemistry between Ben and Sasha and he opens up to Sasha about how he failed to get through film school, “I was trying to be the next Eric Rohmer, but I realised I was just the current Ben Tenaka”, he can’t help feeling that he’s managed a win by dating a white woman – something he makes clear when a guy looks over at them holding hands at a street market. Park’s cringe-comedy comes into full play as Ben pontificates how an Asian guy with a white woman has somehow won something. Later in the film as Miko’s life in NYC is revealed he takes the reverse position – Asian women are fetishes for white men. At this stage Ben hasn’t even reached rock bottom, but he’s getting there as Miko cuts off all communication with him and Alice decides after being suspended from grad school after accidentally kicking a woman “in the pussy” to head off to NYC herself leaving Ben to his own devices as Sasha dumps him after a few weeks with her final sentence “I know you’re going to want to blame this on society or my sexuality or your race, but I want you to understand this is really just about you.”

The cinema Ben’s managing is about to shut down due to poor ticket sales, being structurally unsound, and competing multiplexes. He is out of a job. He has no girlfriend (although he still considers Miko his girlfriend) and Alice is no longer around to enable his bad decisions with her “unreliable moral compass.” Cue a trip to NYC for Ben, the place he considers to be the worst city in America.

Randall Park is cleverly satirising contemporary “aimlessness” and a certain penchant for people to find their identity in places that aren’t relevant. For Ben it is his underserved snobbishness. Really, he has nothing to hang on to. The very nice apartment he lives in is owned by Miko’s wealthy but absent father. His biggest claim to fame is programming films like Miranda July’s The Future and watching Truffaut at home with a Hausu poster in the background. If he was Generation X, he might be able to slink by with his ‘cultural capital’ over his lack of actual capital – but younger and elder millennials exist in a world where all they really have is an overpriced and underused education and are competing in a world where everyone has a “thing” (which brings to mind the excellent Appropriate Behaviour by Desiree Akhavan). Ben’s “thing” is slight at best and the only way he can cover that up is with self-loathing which he turns outward on to people who don’t deserve it.

The section titled HOLD ON is really Ben’s nadir. In NYC he clashes with Alice’s girlfriend Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), a tenured professor who has no problem calling him out on his internal racism and misogyny. Alice has stopped being aimless and has decided that she’s ready for an adult relationship. Miko has truly moved on. Where does that leave Ben? Who even is he if he isn’t the awkward sometimes charming yet often charmless man whose bleak sense of humour allowed him to get by with other disaffected people? What happens when other people get their lives together and he still hasn’t?

Park’s witty contemporary comedy of manners not only speaks of the Asian American experience (what does it mean to be Asian American? What if you refuse to embrace that identity but still cling on to negative vestiges instead of looking forward?) but also talks about finally growing up which by rights should happen before one turns thirty. There are some extraordinarily laugh out loud moments that have specific cinematic references (the film knows genre and other films really well), plus fast paced dialogue that is delivered perfectly especially by Min and Cola. For all the fun, and not fun, there is an emotional heart to the film that runs in tandem to the sometimes-absurd antics Ben gets up to. By the time Ben reaches the final chapter JUST THE BEGINNING he is aware that he’s been dealing with depression and has been an utter arsehole. Alice tells him that it’s time to “Stop being a piece of shit, Ben,” and perhaps he will. He has at least discovered some sense of self awareness.

Shortcomings is magnificently funny, annoyingly relevant, and boasts one of the least likeable protagonists of the year mostly because he’s oddly relatable. Justin H. Min who was tremendous in After Yang gives a top-class performance as Ben – it’s not difficult to dislike him but it’s also not hard to somehow root for him to get over himself. Once again Sherry Cola proves to be the secret sauce to make a feature sing. Between Shortcomings and Joy Ride she has delivered two of the best supporting comedic performances of 2023. Randall Park’s directorial debut is a robust work that will make audiences giggle and cringe, and perhaps even shed a small tear if they recognise their own resistance to growth and change in the current milieu where standing still and trying to make sense of the world seems a hard enough job in itself – after all, we all have shortcomings.

Director: Randall Park

Cast: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki

Writer: Adrian Tomine, (based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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