Cartoonist Adrian Tomine and Randall Park have teamed up with Shortcomings, an adaption of Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel that explores how our character flaws don’t have to define us, and how it’s through intense turmoil that we can experience a tremendous change and growth. Only it’s an exploration that, perhaps intentionally, often comes up short.
Ben (Justin H. Min), a cynical theater manager, can’t seem to enjoy any room he walks into, despite his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) and best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) being so outgoing and encouraging. He is, we soon learn, someone who fails to understand the root of his flaws is mostly himself.
He picks fights needlessly by passing off acidic comments as honest, but is often unwilling to spend the effort for politeness and reading social cues. He constantly obsesses about innocuous details in other people and he’s always framed on the negative side of the conversation. Ben doesn’t recognize that he’s being punished for his poor behavior, complaining about his problems and blaming others for his unhappiness; he’s a raging hypocrite.
Making his directorial debut, Park’s film maintains a comfortable balance between the more serious topics and the jokes, perhaps owing to his experience in comedy. I especially enjoyed Ben’s scenes with Alice because they have a sibling-like chemistry that speaks to their long time friendship, able to talk seriously while keeping things upbeat.
It’s a strange movie because the elements for a low-stakes comedy with compelling social criticism are there, only we rarely see sympathetic vulnerability from Ben to feel like he has the potential to change. The most depressed we see him are in brief montages where he’s going about his day completely alone. But these scenes never stray too far from the movie’s upbeat tone, so it’s unclear that Ben was going through something painful.
We never see how his pain is manifesting. He gets defensive, of course, but he’s always defensive. His first lines in the movie are about his displeasure with everyone else’s enjoyment, and without another frame of reference, why should he be any different? Only one person, Alice’s girlfriend Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), is able to clearly and calmly explain his most impactful shortcomings, to which Ben reacts with such a confident victim complex that I felt disconnected from the film’s ending.
I’ve read that Tomine’s original comics and Park’s movie addresses the influence of heritage, specifically in the Asian community, but as someone who’s never had a strong connection to his ancestry I’m not the best judge of it’s thematic relevance. What I can say is Ben has an unhealthy judgment when it comes to interracial couples, and it clearly speaks to his insecurity, but I can’t articulate what it says about him.
Here’s where I’m conflicted: it’s implied the story is only showing Ben at his worst because it wants to promote a message that change is always possible. And wrapping it in an easygoing dramedy strengthens the relatability of the story; everyone is capable of bettering themselves if they can only recognize it within themselves. But Ben is shown in a negative light for so long that by the end I’m left rooting against him instead of for him.
I don’t know what Randall Park intended with Ben’s story. Are we meant to feel pity for him because we want the best for him, or are we supposed to feel frustrated with him until the last moment? Ultimately, I found his presence off-putting instead of endearing, and I have no idea if this was intentional. Shortcomings is a film that, too often, lives up to its name.