This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Directed by Randall Park in his feature debut, Shortcomings dissects the shortcomings of modern Hollywood representation.
Shortcomings (2023) is a film adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, which originally appeared in issues #9 through #11 of Optic Nerve. Tomine also wrote the screenplay for Shortcomings, which centers Ben Tanaka (After Yang’s Justin H. Min), who is a grad student dropout, art cinema house manager, wannabe filmmaker, and elevated hobosexual. He’s also a killjoy who uses his artistic tastes as the veneer to shield his growing lack of interest in his girlfriend of six years, Miko (Ally Maki), a fellow film enthusiast who seizes an opportunity to take a New York internship and leaves Ben to reside in her dad’s spacious Berkeley apartment. Ben leverages the break to pursue his sexual interest in white girls and hangout with his best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola). But left to his own devices, he hits an all-time low.
Shortcomings courts film lovers with lots of clever cultural references. Tomine himself even makes a cameo appearance as a theater employee ignoring Ben as he makes an announcement. Comedic actor Randall Park, in his directorial feature film debut, also pops up as Alice’s friend and restaurant owner/waiter. Spider-Man inspired Tomine to draw, and Jacob Batalon, who plays Spider-Man’s best friend, Ned, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plays another theater employee/MCU movie enthusiast.
“You always assume the worst about me.”
Fans of Joy Ride (2023) will be delighted by the casting coincidences. Park gives glimpses of Ben’s tastes by showing him lounging on the couch with a couple of DVDs, including Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig. He scrolls on Instagram while Criterion selections play on the large screen television. The film opens with a thinly veiled spoof of Crazy Rich Asians called Just the Beginning.
A lot of the characters’ dialogue seems lifted from real-life grievance-laced rants about movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, specifically the Bruce Lee sequence. These rants examine how Hollywood depicts Asian characters on screen, as well as the spectrum of viewers’ reactions to these iconic films. Such conversations may sound stilted to the more casual moviegoer, so if you found America Ferrara’s Barbie monologue too didactic, then steer clear of this film.
Though billed as a rom-com, Shortcomings’ narrative trajectory is not for Ben to find happiness in any romantic relationship, but to stop acting like he’s a hypocritical, aggrieved adolescent who is above everything so he can be cool and start embracing joy. Ben is an unlikeable protagonist, which may make it difficult to enjoy the movie. But in an element of meta reward, he is a protagonist in the exact type of movie that he would enjoy—a movie filled with flawed characters.
“You could benefit from a little self-hatred.”
Also, in another neat narrative twist, the film begins with Ben’s dismissal of the innate value of movies like Crazy Rich Asians and ends with a tacit, visual apology recognizing that representation matters, and the film did help open the market up so a film about Asian Americans like him would find financing. The film simultaneously permits Ben to verbalize his criticism, uses the narrative arc to challenge him without being pedantic, and then shows how a commercial film can move an ordinary person.
Shortcomings never redeems Ben, except by allowing him to sit alone, recognize his dissatisfaction with every facet of his life, and concede that others can and should be happy independent of him. He stops trying to infect others with his sullenness. Instead of guilting them into feeling obligated to exist as supporting characters in his life and being a provincial poseur pretending to be cosmopolitan, he is forced to reflect without distractions, stop projecting his dissatisfaction on others, and interrogate himself by asking what makes him happy. If Tomine did not mind making a semi-autobiographical novel that exposed his deepest deficiencies, then it should not be a surprise when the viewing experience can be uncomfortable and feel all too real.
The main character is flawed and unlikeable, but that’s not a bad thing.
Shortcomings also tackles interracial relationships — neither denigrating, nor elevating them, but reflecting on their complexities. Most films only reflect one side of the equation. The Big Sick was the exception for giving space to the person of color’s community’s grievances as being more nuanced than instinctual bias, anti-miscegenation inclinations. In that film, a woman of color expresses feelings of being strung along and discarded but has no options outside of the protagonist within that universe. This film illustrates that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
Ben rejects identity politics, Asian solidarity, and the idea of racism except when it comes to interracial relationships. He is possessive and judgmental of Asian women dating white men by dismissing it as fetishism but equates dating white women as a progressive achievement. Ben rejects mainstream media except Eurocentric beauty standards, which Miko finds offensive. By depicting the debate, the film does not cosign either side except Alice’s point of repulsive “hetero power dynamics.” The problem is less one of race and develops into a gender, objectification issue. Men of any race are shown as losing sight of the person before them and seeing women as status symbols or ways to boost their ego whereas women are drawn to those who find them most desirable and value them as a person but ignoring red flags.
Remember that men are making this film. Park includes one incisive shot of Ben on his first date with Sasha (Debby Ryan). The camera is on the same level as the table with Ben and Sasha in the foreground and other couples parallel in focus behind them. Ben glances at a couple with a woman of ambiguous ethnicity. He is giddy at his emerging connection while judging in a glance someone else for engaging in identical activity. The relationship is not enough. For Ben, it is a public performance dissonant with authentic connection.
Insightful, but not always incisive.
Those familiar with the graphic novel and film will be able to determine whether Park’s cinematic translation was identical or takes visual liberties with the source material. Either way, Park shows promise on the other side of the camera. Whether a faithful rendering or a deft interpretation, Park shows that he can quit his day job and start working behind the camera if he so chooses. His composition of every scene conveys the inner, psychological world of each character and their relationships’ health. Notice when characters share a frame and whether they are looking at each other. Are they on the same level? A random zoom into a pillow pattern will be pivotal in the denouement.
As Ben’s relationship deteriorates, even while living in the same space, he and Miko are not in the same shot together. Editing punctuates the argument by showing a person alone arguing before cutting to the other person’s response. They may be facing each other, but the editing makes them feel further apart. During a party, though in the same room as Alice’s fellow sapphic revelers, a well-placed door in the shot keeps him separated from them and reflects that he does not feel like part of the group.
Shortcomings’ main flaw is not devoting enough time to explain (except for Miko) how all the broke adults with no well-paying jobs afford their lifestyles, especially the last-minute plane tickets from California to New York. People eat out and live in spacious apartments that feel like a page from Architectural Digest come to life, but a credit card never makes a guest appearance. These issues seem minor at first but tend to clash with the overall message of the movie, but aside from this unfortunate dissonance, Shortcomings is limited to only a few.
Shortcomings is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
SHORTCOMINGS - 7/10