By Greg Carlson
Randall Park, making his feature directorial debut, convincingly adapts Adrian Tomine’s excellent 2004-2007 graphic serial “Shortcomings.”
Tomine wrote the screenplay, which comes as a relief to longtime “Optic Nerve” fans worried that a movie wouldn’t adequately capture the particularities of the author’s beautifully minimalist lines and the mood contained in the spaces within and between the panels. The collaborators are so obviously invested in the integrity of the original content that the spirit carries over, even if the pacing feels faster than the more languid introspection afforded by the comics medium.
A few timely pop culture updates, including both direct and indirect references to items like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” indicate the ways in which some things change and others stay the same for a central character known for intense pessimism served with a large helping of sarcasm and negativity. Those signature personality traits place Ben (a super Justin H. Min, as good here as in “After Yang”) in a rarefied category: the misanthropic protagonist who challenges audience expectations in regard to rooting interest and sympathy.
Tomine’s existing fanbase is already prepared to spend time with asshole Ben, who manages a Berkeley theater as a film school dropout (providing many opportunities for additional self-reflexive cinematic in-jokes, name-checks, quotations, and homages; in one sense, Ben watches people watching movies).
Ben’s longtime girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) moves to NYC for an internship, signaling doom for the couple’s future and setting the stage for a series of misbegotten romances and bad choices. Ben’s fondness for white women gives Park and company some meaty material to chew. The racial/ethical minefield is met head-on, even though the film version notably leaves out the size anxiety referred to in the title’s double entendre.
The sharp and incisive way in which cultural representation, identity, and fetish bump up against and are filtered through classic screwball tropes is handled by Park with aplomb – one of the funniest scenes is the mirror turnabout that introduces Ben to white guy Leon (Timothy Simons), a Japanese-speaking Asiaphile. Park alternates between Ben’s dating misadventures and his conversations with best pal Alice (Sherry Cola), who uses Ben as a beard to avoid coming out to her religious Korean family. Cola is another of Park’s assets, her presence alleviating some measure of Ben’s suffocating cold-bloodedness.
Hopefully, the movie version of “Shortcomings” will lead viewers to the book. In a 2016 essay, Stella Oh investigates varieties of spectatorship and voyeurism in the original work that might not be as immediately apparent (or at least as visually emphasized) to those now looking at Park’s film.
Oh writes, “As a conscious and active collaborator in the graphic novel, the audience witnesses the multiple failures Ben is subjected to and critically views multiple lenses, frames, and screens that reflect racial and gendered identities.”
Viewers of the new movie are also exposed to Ben’s shortcomings, but the foregrounding of the comedic separates the totality of the cinematic and group experience (even if many consumers will be streaming at home) from the more apparent melancholia emanating from Tomine’s panels, which are intensified by the typically solitary act of reading.
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