THE STORY – A trio of young Bay Area urbanites–Ben Tanaka, Miko Hayashi, and Alice Kim–as they navigate a range of interpersonal relationships, traversing the country in search of the ideal connection.
THE CAST – Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon & Timothy Simons
THE TEAM – Randall Park (Director) & Adrian Tomine (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 92 Minutes
How do you deal with an unlikeable protagonist? Certainly, not every protagonist needs to be a “good person” — humans are just as often petty, shallow, and self-centered as they are generous, good-natured, and well-meaning. Our foibles make us human, and isn’t that what we want out of our movie characters, too? Enter “Shortcomings,” the feature directorial debut of actor Randall Park. The protagonist Ben (Justin H. Min), is one of the most unlikeable protagonists in recent memory, a wannabe filmmaker who begins the film with a lengthy takedown of the rom-com hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” and he only gets more insufferable from there. When his burgeoning activist girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) gets fed up with him and suggests that they take a bit of a break while she goes to New York City for an internship, it sends Ben into a tailspin, attempting to move on with a bisexual woman (Debby Ryan) before eventually going to New York to stalk Miko along with his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola).
The film’s screenplay — written by Adrian Tomine and based on his own graphic novel — has all the correct elements in place to make its unlikeable protagonist’s story arc work. Everyone around Ben is slowly but surely finding what makes them happy in life and moving towards it, while he is stuck in his miserable mindset and going nowhere. The problem with this, though, is that every single character is hyper-self-aware, turning most (if not all) of them into people who simply aren’t any fun to watch. It’s not only Ben who turns out to be unlikeable; it’s also almost everyone around him. However, there’s something to that regarding how certain toxic attitudes and behaviors can spread to those around you, but this doesn’t make for the most enjoyable watch.
The talented cast does what they can with the material, turning in sharp performances that embrace everyone’s flaws. Saddled with a stereotypical role as “the One Person who likes and understands our difficult protagonist,” Maki nonetheless finds plenty of opportunities to showcase her unique comic sensibility and gets lots of laughs in the process. Maki doesn’t have to do much to make Miko’s frustration with Ben palpable, but she does an excellent job of making Miko sympathetic in her plight with Ben while remaining a deeply flawed person herself; both Miko and Ben are responsible for their relationship getting to this point, and Maki doesn’t let you forget it. Min also does excellent work as Ben, fearlessly allowing every insecurity and weakness to be fully displayed. It’s a tremendous performance of many different kinds of self-loathing, and part of what makes it so great is that Min finds ways to delineate them all.
The fact that these actors can make these characters feel like real, relatable people is a huge testament to their skills because so much of Tomine’s dialogue falls into the category of being so self-aware that it sounds nothing like how real people actually talk. Thankfully, Park’s strong comedic sensibility perfectly matches the material, bringing out laughs in places where there aren’t any on the page. “Shortcomings” is a strong debut for Park as a director, a seamless shift from being in front of the camera to behind it. The film has some of the sharpest comic editing of the year, and to the extent that it works, it’s mainly because Park provides a solid foundation. Everyone’s mileage may vary on how bearable it is to spend time with these people, especially Ben. Still, in the hands of this cast and crew, it’s hard to deny that “Shortcomings” is a triumph of allowing its unlikeable protagonist to remain unlikeable throughout most, if not all, of its runtime. It’s difficult to get fully invested when everyone else in the film is also unlikeable.