Many navel-gazing indie flicks swirl around a tried and true trope: the urban neurotic, narcissistic, sarcastic, self-pitying, supposedly irresistible man-child that pines about unattainable women, unattainable jobs, and how he is a victim of the universe. You’d think that a cineaste dude like Ben (Justin H. Min) would appreciate that, despite the fact that he as a film character falls exactly into that irritating and tired cliché. Except for one thing: Ben is Asian American.
This is important to point out because Shortcomings is immediately novel because of this, and for the fact that the majority of the cast are Asian American actors. This should make Shortcomings, based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, a refreshing reimagining of this trope. But except for some scenes and social commentary that are unique to the Asian American experience, Shortcomings surprisingly comes across as more of the same.
Ben is a failed filmmaker who manages a Berkeley movie house and fights with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) who is obviously on her last nerve in the relationship. She accepts a promising internship in New York City while he shoots down her aspirations. Let’s just say when she hops the plane they seem mutually (but not formally) on a break. Ben, being the winner he is, immediately starts pursuing white girls (his porn ideal), including a woman who works for him. See? Charming. When he hooks up with a woman names Sasha (Debby Ryan), he immediately judges others for how he perceives they judge him: an Asian man with a white woman.
The saving grace for Ben, and in fact for this whole movie, is that his best friend is the straight-talking, super-queer Alice (Sherry Cola). She calls him on his bullshit, his racial hang-ups, and for being a terrible boyfriend. At least Alice owns the fact that she herself sleeps around and can’t commit to one woman. As Alice hauls mopey Ben around like a wet rag, you can’t help but think, boy is he lucky to have her. When Alice herself moves to New York, she encourages Ben to visit… and when he finally does, hoping to surprise Miko, it does not go well.
Director Randall Park has made by all accounts a solid film. The cast is strong, the plot moves along, and technically there is absolutely nothing wrong with this movie. But boy, I hated hanging out with Ben for 90 minutes. He’s selfish, whiny, and unsympathetic. I tried… really I tried to see his charms. Maybe when he was cozy on his couch, lighting up while rewatching his favorite Criterion movie. Or maybe when he dorkily thought an attractive woman was asking to sit with him in a public space, but actually just wanted to borrow the empty chair. Maybe that is the guy that managed to get himself a cool girlfriend and awesome bestie. Maybe.
The the truth is, the awesome bestie Alice is way more interesting as a person and as a character. As the daughter of super-traditional conservative Korean parents, Alice has built her own façade of lies that she has to navigate on the home front. But she also has way more of a spine than passive-aggressive Ben. She owns her own bullshit vs constantly deflecting blame. She at least grows as a character. And can I give a shout-out to Sherry Cola, who give Alice such a spark that you wish the camera followed her out the door instead of lingering on Ben? Cola is awesome, and is easily my new favorite comic discovery (she was also recently in the film Joy Ride). A scene-stealer, she is brassy, sassy, and down-to-earth. Shortcomings would have been a way more interesting story if it was about Alice. Instead, we get another movie about the world as reflected through the eyes of a 30-ish dude who has no ability of self-reflection on his own.