Shortcomings (United States, 2022)

August 02, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Shortcomings Poster

Although Shortcomings features as its central character an intolerable lout and the storyline is episodic, the directorial debut of actor/writer Randall Park shines in its sly observances about Asian American cultural idiosyncrasies and its character interaction. In a classic instance of the whole not being better than the sum of its parts, many individual scenes are enjoyable even though the overarching narrative at times feels derivative and uninspired. The screenplay, written by Adrian Tomine and based on his graphic novel, delivers a lot of laughs – some of which are earned and a few of which are cheap – and the actors all do terrific jobs. A success at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, the movie earned a limited distribution toward the end of the summer season.

Shortcomings’ focus is on Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min), a Japanese American twentysomething who is skating through life. He lives in Berkeley with his activist girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) while managing a struggling movie theater. Being in a relationship with Miko doesn’t prevent him from fantasizing about white women. When Miko becomes fed-up with his lack of interest in both her and his Asian heritage, she decides to pursue an internship in New York. This enables Ben to act on his fascination with European women – first with Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), whom he hires to work at the theater, then with Sasha (Debby Ryan). When neither relationship goes well, he decides to accompany his best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), to New York, where he hopes to reconnect with Miko.

If the characters in Shortcomings were a few years younger, this might be considered a “coming of age” story. Then again, Ben shows a such a lack of maturity that perhaps his emotional IQ is on the same level as someone ten years his junior. Although he can at times be charming, an objective portrait of him as an individual wouldn’t be flattering. When he’s with Miko, he is dismissive and, as soon as she’s on the other side of the continent, he sees her absence as an opportunity to sleep with other women. Once he realizes that he actually needs/wants her, he contrives an opportunity to go to New York to spy on her, effectively sabotaging his best friend’s new relationship in the process. The term “toxic” was coined for people like Ben.

Still, Ben isn’t a man-child in the Adam Sandler mold because, unlike Sandler who was as abrasive as they come during the early part of his career, there’s something likeable about Justin H. Min. Although he’s generally clueless about the feelings of others, there are instances when he has flashes of insight. Alice, who is as cynical as Ben but not as oblivious, allows the filmmakers to present a more rounded perspective of Ben than how he sees himself. Played by Joy Ride’s Sherry Cola, she is more critical than Miko to our understanding of who Ben is and why so many of his injuries are self-inflicted.

The dialogue is often clever in an indie film way. The characters’ conversations, which frequently reference classic movie scenes and/or lines, are of the sort that were in vogue back in the 1990s and it’s fun to see them resurrected some three decades later. Shortcomings isn’t old-fashioned or retro but there’s a distinctly non-mainstream vibe. I was reminded of early Woody Allen in the way the movie examines the neuroses of a not-necessarily-affable main character while at the same time touching on non-WASP aspects without becoming preachy. The overall tone is light and some scenes – such as the meeting between Ben and Miko’s ultra-nice New York “friend” – are downright hilarious.

What’s confusing to me is why Shortcomings is being given a theatrical release. Back in the 1990s, movies like this played well in art houses but that aspect of the industry is pretty much dead and it’s hard to see something like this opening to large audiences in multiplexes. It appears custom-made for a streaming service and will lose nothing from a home viewing. Regardless, with its smart and irreverent screenplay and trio of strong performances, the movie is a winner in whatever circumstances a viewer discovers it.

Shortcomings (United States, 2022)

Director: Randall Park
Cast: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno
Screenplay: Adrian Tomine, based on his graphic novel
Cinematography: Santiago Gonzalez
Music: Gene Back
U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2023-08-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1