Indie Comics Titan Adrian Tomine Gets the Cinematic Treatment in Randall Park’s ShortcomingsMovies Reviews Sundance 2023
“There wasn’t a real character in the whole thing,” grouses Ben (Justin H. Min) to his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) as they leave a movie screening Miko has just organized, clarifying that he was looking in vain for a normal, flawed human being. Though the movie is unnamed, its closing scene, which doubles as the opening scene of Shortcomings, is patterned with hilarious clarity after Crazy Rich Asians. Like the heroes of the film-within-the-film, Ben and Miko are Asian-American, but Ben doesn’t see himself in the glossy big-studio romance Miko has scored for her film festival programming. “It’s depressing to see a roomful of people lose their minds over a movie just because of representation or whatever,” he tells her, in a scene seemingly designed to make well-intentioned Sundance audiences squirm and bristle right along with Miko. It’s an early signal that Ben will not acquiesce to saying something nice and supportive when something more caustic or cranky enters his head.
It’s also one of the few minor changes actor-turned-director Randall Park and cartoonist-turned-screenwriter Adrian Tomine have made in adapting Tomine’s graphic novel of the same name (originally published in 2007, after being serialized in Tomine’s seminal comic book Optic Nerve). Tomine has updated the book’s pop culture references – basic film bros check Christopher Nolan rather than Fight Club; porn appears on browser tabs, rather than DVDs – while keeping the episodic, conversational structure of his story almost completely intact. It’s a tribute to the quietly unflinching nature of his writing – and, at times, the understated role his artwork, absent in this live-action adaptation, plays in bringing that writing fully to life.
Though Ben inhabits a very 2023 world of #RepresentationMatters, his dynamics with Miko and the rest of the world, remains appropriately unchanged. He tries what he may well consider his best to maintain a functional, long-term, live-in relationship with Miko, built on their seemingly similar cultural heritage and seemingly overlapping interests. What he sees as mild, playful contrarianism has worn on Miko, especially as she notices Ben’s uncomfortable attraction (if largely not acted upon, apart from the porn she finds on his computer) to white girls. Ben brushes this off as pointless fussing from Miko; his queer best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) can at least rib him about his proclivities with a little more humor, returned with his own jibs about Alice’s serial dating. But when Miko accepts an opportunity to leave the Bay Area for a short-term project in New York, the couple begins to take ambiguous steps toward separation. Ben, manager of a repertory movie house and a frustrated one-time filmmaker, takes the opportunity to spend more time with the kinds of semi-artsy and/or academically-minded white women he’s clearly fantasized about.
That’s much of the elegantly slim book, and much of the 90-minute movie; both are composed largely of scenes of characters either having or avoiding uncomfortable conversations about race, social mores, and each other’s worst habits. In comics, Tomine’s dialogue stands out as naturalistic, faithfully reproducing the hems, haws, and rhythms of the insecure and the self-conscious. Translated so directly to the screen – much of the screenplay is verbatim from the book – it sounds a little more stilted, especially compared to a master of neurotic second-guessing like Noah Baumbach.
The actors do manage to bring some of their own spin into Tomine’s world. Newcomers may well find Min unbearably toxic as Ben; he’s condescending, brusque, unyielding, and selfish, among others. This version of Ben is also cuter, less sweatily angry, and somewhat less abrasive than his comic-book counterpart, and the women in Ben’s life feel a little fuller; Alice in particular is less of a sounding board in this slightly expanded telling. As a director, Park doesn’t exactly reproduce the drifty ambiguities of Tomine’s lovely line work, which can sometimes draw dreamlike feelings from its clean, unembellished reality. He does, however, make some sharply interrupting cuts from scene to scene; it feels like his way of imitating the starkness of Tomine’s panels.
More important is Park’s allegiance to Ben’s unlikable qualities, and to Tomine’s avoidance of life-affirming self-improvement narratives. Shortcomings isn’t about Ben learning to accept his heritage, or find redemption in a healthy romance, and it’s smart enough to understand that Ben’s decision to repair things with Miko or pursue various white women or make other relationship changes will be rendered moot without addressing the litany of unresolved issues roiling around in his brain. At one point, Miko accuses him of being too eager to assimilate; really, he’s merged his ethnic identity with a familiar form of “aggrieved American artist without a canvas,” equally caught up in Criterion discs and button-pushing jokes that don’t land. It’s a piercing portrayal of culturally specific nerd rage in Tomine’s comics; on film, it’s a little talky, and could’ve used more Ghost World-style moments of caricature, like that savaging of Crazy Rich Asians at the opening. But while Shortcomings doesn’t turn Ben into a misanthropic hero or excuse his often-terrible behavior, it does stick to the ethos he espouses early in the picture: This is a movie full of people who are flawed, and real.
Director: Randall Park
Writer: Adrian Tomine
Starring:: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Jacob Batalon
Release Date: January 21, 2023 (Sundance)
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.