Critipeg: Shortcomings

★★½ out of 5

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Actor and comedian Randall Park has been cutting his teeth as a director in episodic TV for the last three years. His debut feature film as a director, Shortcomings, is a promising showcase for his talents behind the camera. Unfortunately, “promising” is about the nicest thing to be said about any element of the film: promising direction and promising performances from artists who will surely go on to do more interesting work than this.

Shortcomings follows Ben (Justin H. Min), a twenty-something manager at a floundering arthouse movie theatre, who is at a crossroads in his life. His relationship with his Type A girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), who’s about to move to New York for an internship, is on the rocks.

They’re at loggerheads about a variety of issues, mostly stemming from Ben’s personality. Ben would likely describe himself as an intellectual, a struggling artist, a cinephile. More accurately, he’s a snobbish, pretentious prick.

With Miko out of town and their relationship up in the air, Ben engages in flirtations with an art-punky coworker (a magnetic Tavi Gevinson), a Berkeley grad student (a less compelling Debby Ryan) and acts as a beard for his gay best friend (Sherry Cola, in the film’s standout performance).

Park’s visual style is clean and unobtrusive, which is probably the right move for this material. You wouldn’t want the film to feel like it was directed by Ben. Sadly, the script (adapted by Adrian Tomine from his 2007 graphic novel of the same name), feels like it could’ve been written by Ben.

The influence of Ghost World is clear, with the film following an arty young protagonist through an episodic series of trials in romance, friendship and growing up. But while Ghost World has a throughline, an emotional journey for its protagonist, Shortcomings episodes feel listless, lacking momentum or progress for Ben.

It’s a shame, because the movie comes right up to the edge of wrestling with some big topics. The dialogue touches on racial tensions between different Asian diasporas, biphobia, Hollywood’s commodification of the discourse around representation and racial justice. Ben, a fourth-generation Japanese American, has a very different perspective from his first-generation friends.

But Tomine doesn’t seem interested in exploring these ideas with any depth, instead using them as fuel for arguments between his characters. Tonally, the picture seems to be aiming for a melancholy rom-com, a comedy with something on its mind. Instead, it oscillates between melodrama and wordy dialogue scenes that rarely inspire a full belly laugh.

That’s not to say that Shortcomings doesn’t have its charms. Most of the young actors feel like new arrivals with bright futures. Min carries Ben’s anger and self-loathing in a way that avoids cliche, even if it’s in service of a character who isn’t very pleasant to spend time with. Cola brings a naturalism to a character that the script doesn’t know what to do with. Gevinson brings humanity to a character that could be a broad caricature, while still delivering the movie’s biggest laughs. But like the film itself, it all feels like unfulfilled promises.

Published in Volume 78, Number 02 of The Uniter (September 14, 2023)

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