The directorial debut of actor Randall Park, Shortcomings is a faithful re-creation of the three-issue comic series by Adrian Tomine, who also wrote the screenplay, though Park may as well have used the comic’s pages in lieu of a script or storyboards. As an adaptation, it’s an example of fidelity to a tee, and to a fault, bringing little by way of visual inventiveness of its own. Its story—about frustrated Japanese American film lover Ben Tanaka, his infidelities, and his narcissism—is carried carefully by actor Justin H. Min (After Yang), and an ensemble that’s highly capable of balancing rigorous drama and irreverent comedy. However, it’s a film so slavishly adherent to Tomine’s nearly 20-year-old story (published as part of his Optic Nerve series starting in 2004) that it ends up with little to say about here and now.
The only major modern update is found in the opening scene, which re-creates a fancy, Crazy Rich Asians-esque scenario starring one of that film’s original actors, Ronnie Chieng, and Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Stephanie Hsu, before pulling back to reveal an enthusiastic audience at a Bay Area Asian American film festival. In this way, Shortcomings positions itself as an extension of the present moment of East Asian American cinema, and eventually—given Ben’s disdain for this fake movie’s mawkish sentimentality—a refutation of it as well. A disagreement ensues over this fictitious film, between Ben and his festival organizer girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), which serves to exacerbate their pre-existing relationship drama, while also posturing Shortcomings as a more realistic and nuanced alternative to Hollywood gloss. But apart from the specifics of the movie they watch, nothing about this scene departs from Tomine’s comic enough to justify a modern setting.
On one hand, this failure to fully update the material plays almost like meta-commentary about how little progress has been made on the “representation” front, despite the Crazy Rich Asians-es of the world—i.e. films that Ben believes center racial identity sans nuance or lived experience. It’s a mode of filmmaking with which he isn’t comfortable, even though these are works through which audiences around him find cosmetic recognition, if nothing else. But on the other hand, Ben’s critique of this specialized festival and its two-dimensional attendees—we largely see the world through his perspective—opens the door to critiquing the current cultural moment and its incremental progress in ways the movie is never truly equipped to do. If Shortcomings suggests that there’s a gap in this movement, it’s a gap the film itself is unable to fill (the way a visually precise and poetic work like Past Lives readily does). Much of this, unfortunately, comes down to Park’s imprecision as a first-time filmmaker.
On one hand, this failure to fully update the material plays almost like meta-commentary about how little progress has been made on the “representation” front, despite the Crazy Rich Asians-es of the world—i.e. films that Ben believes center racial identity sans nuance or lived experience.
The story, broken up into chapters seemingly at random, concerns Miko jetting off to New York for a few months, leaving Ben to his own devices and allowing him to unscrupulously explore his attraction to blonde white women in her absence. Ben’s relationship to Asian-ness and whiteness is a key thematic underpinning, and it’s one that Min plays deftly, with careful attention to emotional detail. Like Tomine, Ben is several generations removed from Japan, leaving him in an awkward position around other Asian Americans whose families immigrated more recently, and who are more in touch with their roots, and more present their parents’ cultures as a key part of their identities. He rejects both cultural longing and sincerity—it’s just one of the many factors that makes his personality so abrupt and grating—except in the rare case when he happily pretends to be Korean to act as a beard for his lesbian best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola).
There’s a wonderfully buoyant sense of familiarity between Ben and Alice, but it’s one that Park seldom taps into, presenting conversations in rote and functional fashion—his static shot-reverse shot approach ping-pongs arrhythmically and never accentuates the comedy—leaving his actors to do most of the heavy lifting. It's a blessing, then, that Min and Cola are incredibly adept at turning straightforward dialogue into engaging dramedy, walking the tightrope of Tomine’s ironic detachment with the exact right emotional balance, given the absurd turns the story eventually takes. However, the film rarely extends beyond the confines of the comic, and never seeks to deepen the details of what is essentially a short story.
Shortcomings often attempts to skewer the art world at large, via the contrived performance pieces of a young, blonde employee Ben hires—Tavi Gevinson as Autumn, a spitting image of her comic equivalent—at the crumbling indie movie theater he manages. However, Park remains so locked into and laser focused on Ben’s flippant perspective on art that this inadvertently becomes the movie’s perspective too, leaving it with something to prove about creation and artistry, but in a way it often fails to. At one point, Ben watches Ohayo by Ozu Yasujiro, a scene meant to emphasize his love for classic Japanese cinema, but it only serves as a reminder of how a superior filmmaker like Ozu effortlessly observed life in all its rhythms, while Shortcomings struggles to assemble most of its scenes in meaningful ways.
For the majority of its 92 minutes, the film has little to say, and no way of saying it beyond letting the camera run and hoping Min and his co-stars will pick up the slack. The closest Park comes to an interesting approach is the way he concludes some of his scenes, often mid-punchline, using abrupt and amusing cuts imbued with a distinctly new-media sensibility (à la TikTok and Vine). But this is about the only comedic flourish that stands out, and it’s hardly effective enough to retroactively improve the scenes themselves. The film shares plenty of common elements with another recent Asian American comedy, Joy Ride, including half its cast—Cola, Hsu, Chieng, and token white guy Timothy Simons, who’s a comedic highlight here, in a role best left unspoiled—in addition to sharing some of its structural DNA. Which is to say, it’s back-loaded with drama that packs a punch, but arrives far too late.
Only in the case of Shortcomings, this dramatic third act is, at the very least, a direct and organic extension of the story Min has been telling, via Ben’s increasingly aggressive responses paired with an increasingly defeatist body language, as if his hostility is what helps him stay afloat. Park, of course, has been telling this story too, though his camera seldom compliments or accentuates any of Min’s skillful work, and only settles into a comfortable pattern once Ben reaches a breaking point, allowing Park’s noncommittal filmmaking to finally have a good reason to be unobtrusive and still. Like Joy Ride, the movie’s most effective moments are when its form and content finally align, even if by accident, since its aesthetic approach is largely unchanging in spite of the narrative’s twists and turns.
Despite critiquing the current zeitgeist with its minor story tweaks, Shortcomings has little to say about the politics of representation in the present, even if its protagonist is as locked in to the topic (and as verbose about it) as a novelty Twitter account. It’s more discourse than drama at times, with an arsenal full of outdated terminology, and it lacks the substance to be smart or funny enough as a counterpoint to what has now become the ostensible Asian American mainstream. Its attempted skewering of superficial artistry unfortunately applies just as much to itself as it does to any of Ben’s targets, rendering the film as lacking in self-awareness as its protagonist. Only while Ben eventually comes around, Shortcomings remains too blinkered, and too caught up in its own allure, to recognize its cinematic flaws.
Published on August 4, 2023