TEXAS, USA — Cinephiles may find themselves rejoicing early in on “Shortcomings”: In a time when the MCU panders to its most ardent fans with endless Easter eggs, here is a new movie that name-drops elite arthouse cinema talent and cleverly positions certain films in such a way that we turn into the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme for once.
Is this longtime actor Randall Park looking to win some points from critics early in his feature directorial debut? Much as it may seem so at the start of this well-acted, conceptually subversive dramedy, it’s nice to know there’s also real intention behind the careful placement of a “House” poster or “Frances Ha” DVD spine once we get to know their owner, Ben (Justin H. Min), a Berkeley arthouse theater manager who feigns interest in meaningful ideas or relationships. What soon becomes clear is that, for however soft-spoken and puppy dog-eyed his act is, all Ben might really care about is having his say, and saying it loudly. Narrowsighted as it may be for us to assume the average moviegoer will spot those obscure references sprinkled throughout “Shortcomings,” narrowsighted also describes the lens through which Ben navigates the world.
And also through which the movie itself navigates Ben. Simple as this character study may seem on the surface, Park has set himself no easy task for his first effort behind the camera; subjectivity takes the reigns just a few minutes in, after we watch the final moments of a fake movie-within-a-movie as an Asian American film festival audience bursts into applause at having seen themselves onscreen. Ben is not so moved; he wants substance to go with his representation, or so he says. His argument is strong, but the movie’s very construction sets about suggesting he might not mean what he says, and certainly not in the way he thinks he’s saying it.
Written by Adrian Tomine, here adapting his own graphic novel, and smartly edited by Robert Nassau, “Shortcomings” is built around a pattern of escalating possibility and crash-landing reality; one of the first such sequences arrives when Ben's partner, Miko, interrogates him about his online porn search history… more specifically, about the Western blondes he seems to have a particular thing for. These subjectively powered set pieces culminate with Ben actively making the worst out of a given awkward situation before the movie cuts away just as those around him – including Miko (Ally Maki), his BFF Alice (Sherry Cola) and multiple misfire romantic flings – are about to lob the ball right back into his side of the court.
“Shortcomings” (the movie’s title really does say it all) earns comedy points with its eagerness to portray Ben’s ready-to-jump-ship tendencies so literally, to say nothing of how Park and Tomine make a running gag out of his impressive ability to make the next thing that comes out of his mouth the worst thing he’s yet uttered. It fertilizes the proceedings for the possibility intellectual ruminations too, even if the movie’s aims (and those of Ben himself) mean that the most ostensibly urgent issues he reckons with will eventually be sanded down. The script brushes across the surfaces of themes like cultural identity, West Coast/East Coast bias, occupational existentialism and raging ego—most explicitly explored, or at least signal-light-indicated, through Ben’s attempted sexual conquests.
There’s a nugget of a compelling idea in the notion that Ben may be able to reckon with the complex contradictions he represents only through the most primal of human urges (“Does everyone in Berkeley have a hard-on for New York?” he blurts out at one point), and for better or worse the movie itself takes after this tension, busying itself by ticking off the reasons why Ben is a nuclear-grade jerk to the point that it can be hard to see the dramatic trajectory underlining it all. If it feels like Min’s performance is a bit too meticulous for fear of missing his cues, it only deepens the irony that no matter how cautious Ben is, it’s all about to go to hell for him anyway.
Whether these contradictions built into “Shortcomings” work for you or not might depend on your own knowledge about recent film trends, to bring things back around to where we started. Park himself has made a career out of being a Hollywood bench player utilized for projects on screens big and small, and one can imagine that what he’s seen on those sets – and how he’s been utilized, or not utilized – gives him credibility to tell this story centered on an Asian American allowed to be as flawed and despicable as the protagonists of an early Noah Baumbach picture. Fewer people will see “Shortcomings” than, say, “Shang-Chi” or “Everything Everywhere All At Once," though in some respects it marks a bigger advance for representation than either of those box office behemoths. Ben might not be able to see himself past the performance of someone who thinks he’s got it all figured out, but “Shortcomings’” vision of itself is far clearer, to delightful and sometimes unexpected ends.
"Shortcomings" is now in some San Antonio-area theaters. It's rated R for language throughout, sexual material and brief nudity. Runtime: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Directed by Randall Park; written by Adrian Tomine, adapting his graphic novel
Starring: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson