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‘Shortcomings’ spends a long time with a real jerk

Randall Park’s directorial debut brings Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel to the screen as a feature for Justin H. Min and Sherry Cola.

Sherry Cola and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings.”Sony Pictures Classics

“Shortcomings,” actor Randall Park’s big-screen directorial debut, opens with a parody of the 2018 box-office hit, “Crazy Rich Asians.” Stephanie Hsu and “Asians” costar Ronny Chieng have cameos in the film-within-a-film, which is showing at a festival attended by grumpy wannabe filmmaker Ben (Justin H. Min) and his best friend, Alice (Hsu’s “Joy Ride” costar, Sherry Cola).

As Park’s camera pans across the approving, applauding audience, Ben’s unhappy face stands out. Even Alice, who usually mirrors Ben’s snarky, unpleasant demeanor, has enjoyed the film, and why not? She works with the festival and probably programmed it. In response, Ben echoes the criticisms leveled at “Crazy Rich Asians” — that it celebrated capitalistic tendencies and was a hit solely because Asian people wanted to see themselves represented onscreen, even if the cinematic cognoscenti deemed the film mediocre.


Ben complains that movies like the serious ones he wants to make (but, of course, never will) should be the standard. Alice counters by saying a crowd-pleasing hit may open the door for other films to be made by Asian people. We get a good idea of Ben’s personality when, during a post-film conversation with Alice’s co-workers, he can barely hide his contempt for anyone who may have enjoyed the movie.

These early scenes feel as if Park were offering his film as a corrective. Filmmakers taking swipes at other movies is always fun to witness, but if I may go the same petty route, I posit that “Shortcomings” is guilty of some of the same sins Ben is railing against. The recasting of the rich white characters who would usually populate a comedy like “Crazy Rich Asians” has an equal counterpart in representation here. Min is playing a role that would normally be portrayed in an indie film by, say, Jake Johnson (see: Joe Swanberg’s 2013 film, “Drinking Buddies”). Ben is a variation of the most egregious and tiresome of independent movie tropes: the petulant, toxic cishet man-child.


“Barbie” effectively skewered this type of dude. In this Berkeley-set version of that film’s Mojo Dojo Casa House, Ben would rather watch Ozu movies than sleep with his long-suffering girlfriend of six years, Miko (Ally Maki). He’s also a mansplainer and a stalker who can’t help but lustfully stare at white women when he’s out with Miko, causing her to question if he’d rather be with the women he fetishizes.

Ben also appears to have zero social skills and makes comments that, in the real world, would get him beaten up by most people, including nuns.

Thankfully, writer Adrian Tomine, who adapted his graphic novel to screen, has other characters push back, most notably Alice and eventually Miko. Even in the rare instances when we agree with Ben’s brutal commentary, someone is there to tell him he’s rude (or worse).

Though their relationship is strictly platonic (she’s a lesbian), Alice and Ben are a perfect match. They’re both snarky and prickly, and neither suffers fools gladly. But Alice is far more aware of her shortcomings and of who she is. She also fits in more socially than Ben does. One gets the sense that she can survive without his friendship, but he would be completely lost without hers. This notion is given credence when Alice falls for Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno) and reconsiders her single status.


When Miko gets an internship in New York City, the self-absorbed Ben immediately shoots down the idea. He tells her that he won’t move across the country for her. She responds that she didn’t ask him to, then suggests a temporary separation.

Ben takes this opportunity to pursue what Miko referred to as “his type,” that is, white women. After attempting to date Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), his weird, arty co-worker at the movie theater he manages, he becomes romantically involved with Sasha (Debby Ryan), whose bisexuality puts him at odds with the bi-phobic Alice.

Of course, Ben doesn’t expect Miko to have her own adventures in Gotham, so when he discovers she is dating someone else, things get a bit ugly.

Though it delves into some dark territory, “Shortcomings” has a light touch and is at times very funny. The hilarious Cola is easily the film’s MVP, but Mizuno and Maki are also quite good. The film’s self-awareness and humor about its protagonist are its greatest assets. However, Park does not successfully reconcile his opening point about lighthearted movies and representation.

“Shortcomings” attempts to address Ben’s reaction to the festival film by paying homage to the scene in Preston Sturges’s 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels” where Joel McCrea’s character realizes that people sometimes just want to forget their troubles for a couple hours at the movies. In Sturges’s hands, the sentiment rings true. Here, seen through Ben’s eyes, it just comes off as judgmental of viewers.




Directed by Randall Park. Written by Adrian Tomine. Starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno, Ronny Chieng, Stephanie Hsu. 92 min. At AMC Boston Common, Dedham Community Theatre, suburbs. Rated R (nudity, profanity, a really gross art exhibit)

Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this review misstated the name of the character who falls for Meredith and reconsiders her single status. The character is Alice. The Globe regrets the error.

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.