“It’s depressing to see a room full of people lose their minds over a movie just because of representation,” Ben (Justin H. Min), a thirtysomething failed filmmaker in Berkeley, tells his longterm girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), “or whatever.” In her sweet trust-fund-kid kitchen, Miko, who works at the Asian American Film Festival that had just shown the “Crazy Rich Asians”-like picture, “What about the possibility that they just really enjoyed it?” “That would be even more depressing!” Ben says.
It’s a season for the comeuppance of a curmudgeon in Randall Park’s smart, biting “Shortcomings,” adapted by Adrian Tomine from his graphic novel of the same name. At what appears a customary bitch-session at a diner the next day, Ben tells his gay friend Alice (Sherry Cola), “The entire theater was going insane, I thought I was at a BTS concert.” (“Everything’s less creepy without the hetero power dynamics,” notes Alice, who, of her ever-prowling habit, says “Just because I”m a a hypocrite doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”)
A new world swirls around Ben—mostly new; the Berkeley of yesterday still flavors today—but their ever-since-high-school conversations continue: he doesn’t think he was treated any differently from being Asian then, he says, it was just what a dick he was to everyone: “I fucking earned that outcast status.” Park’s direction is gentle but hardly genteel, much like the actors’ knowing play with Tomine’s barbed dialogue, even at car-crash velocity.
Ben’s the manager of the woebegone Berkeley arts cinema, the marquee of which advertises fake modern art-house pictures “Kiss Already,” “Emergency Contact” and “Clouds.” There are no throngs. Park’s framings are simple, and at their best, evoke the fine line of Tomine’s graphic-novel compositions. There’s a slightly held low-angle shot of a CLOSED movie theater’s marquee that aches, falling like a wall of DVDs. A major turn later in the story begins with the camera falling away from a couple in bed, drifting to a pillow’s pattern that resembles the graphic design of interstitial pages in Tomine’s work, and also—literally!—Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu’s “pillow shots,” which capture in-between moments with lyrical grace yet cumulative emotional weight. There’s even an on-screen citation of Ozu’s “Ohayo” (“Good Morning”) to flag the master. Plus: shots like one isolating a coffee pot, a cup: harking to those older movies, evoking Tomine’s timeless panels.
The patter’s snappy—”People mistake me for Korean all the time”; “You wish.” And satiric: “We’re trying to combine the physicality of modern dance and improvisation of free jazz and fuse it with a punk sensibility.”
A ghost sign, faded advertising on brick near a cafe—”BErk 1927″—evokes much as well, like a cloud in any other movie or a panel from any of Tomine’s treasury of heart-tingling urban panels.
Ben has faced his failure as an artist, if not as a romancer, saying he was “trying to be the next Eric Rohmer or something, but I had to accept that eventually I was just current Ben Togawa.” One male-female friendship begins nicely, a kiss requested: “Yes. Consent granted. It’s much appreciated, thank you, and great job,” but, naturally, current Ben Togawa soon emotionally puts a foot and a fist and then the other foot into it. Faced with Miko taking a break to Manhattan, Ben motors, “Does everyone in Berkeley just have a hard-on for New York like why doesn’t the entire Bay Area pack up and move over to New York City and call it a day!” That’s Ben, and Min manages to convey both the character’s innate charm and hardly sublimated rage. Ben’s version of a compliment? “You are… so… incredibly beautiful I just assume that every guy we pass hates my fucking guts.”
Park’s made a winning post-romcom while parceling the learned lessons in less-than-common places: the sardonic man is the protagonist, but he’s hardly a hero, and the other characters, even at their most noxious, float effortlessly above this jerk’s eternal confoundment. With Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan.
“Shortcomings” is playing at River East, AMC New City, Landmark Glen, AMC Evanston and other locations.