.Look Familiar?

Rom-com deluxe ‘Shortcomings’ has more than tribal identity on its mind

Shortcomings began life as a graphic novel by popular cartoonist Adrian Tomine (Killing and Dying, Optic Nerve), and he wrote its screenplay as well—as directed by TV helmer Randall Park in his feature-length debut. Quite aside from the local sizzle provided by the movie’s East Bay setting, Tomine’s story and dialogue are part of one of the smartest pieces of writing this year, a putatively standard-brand romantic sitcom that instead opens up exciting new possibilities in the form.

Ben, the main character (played by Justin H. Min), is the 30-ish, quietly argumentative operator of a neighborhood movie house, as well as someone occasionally referred to as possessing a “bad personality.” Meaning he’s a temperamental wise-mouth who doesn’t like to walk away from an argument. While that’s going on, Ben’s live-in girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), a staffer with a film festival, grows more and more disappointed with their relationship. And then there’s Ben’s buddy Alice (Sherry Cola, from the recent Joy Ride), a reassuringly familiar-looking foil for Tomine’s semi-comic examination of modern love. Alice, too, is suffering from relationship hiccups. They’re all Asian American and all hyper-aware.

Shortcomings arrives on the scene in the midst of a hectic, seemingly never-ending cultural discussion. In real life and onscreen, urban men and women skirmish relentlessly over race, class and putative power. Every conversation ends up with the same questions. Who are the winners and losers? How did it happen? Each new scene brings up a new culture-clash flashpoint, the more abstract and emblematic the better. The story exists in a world in which, in the time it takes for a person to walk across an office lobby, someone could buy that building and inform the racist gatekeeper that his new job is taking out the trash—a fantasy scenario presented as a daydream.

Ben can’t stop eyeing attractive blondes. Could be his preoccupations are just as much of a dating-game cliché as rice queens or sandy-haired surfer dudes. Autumn, a new employee at the theater (Tavi Gevenson), is a major distraction for him with her punk-rock pretensions, as is hipster Sasha (Debby Ryan). Further complicating his love life is Ben’s ivory tower film-snob attitude. He especially disdains easy cross-cultural feel-gooder movies. A bad flick is a worse crime for him than the beard act he performs for the benefit of Alice’s old-country family, a Japanese American pretending to be Korean American. Nothing provokes his disdain more than the “It’s a little glossy, but it’s ours” rationale for soft-centered “faces like mine” Asian-American entertainment. “Authenticity” is a perennial stumbling block. None of the female characters around Ben quite relate to his taste, other than to wince and walk on. So he constantly risks being stranded on his private old-movie island, alone.

Tomine and Park’s thoughtful probing of these self-centered souls benefits greatly from the East Bay vibe, particularly the Oakland-Berkeley location work. Ben’s “Berkeley Arts Cinema” is in fact the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, and Autumn lives in downtown Oakland’s Tribune Tower. Much is made of the comparison of the hip, laid-back East Bay to Miko and Alice’s next destination, businesslike New York City, where Alice’s squeeze, Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), is a humor-starved Barnard professor drowning in theory. Throughout, Tomine’s dialogue, especially in the mouth of Ben, is a cause for celebration.

Is Ben really lacking “kindness, warmth and basic human decency”—in Alice’s words, he’s “a piece of shit”—or is he just another comically maladjusted 21st-century urbanite looking for love in all the wrong places? The culture-war inside jokes fly thick and fast, more from the Art School Confidential POV than from the Everything Everywhere All at Once folder; maybe a tribute to Tomine’s comics contemporary Daniel (Ghost World) Clowes.

All the characterizations, especially by Min and Cola, put Tomine’s witty, careful send-up into a rare category. Shortcomings tells us more about ourselves than any other film this summer, including Barbie.

In theaters

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