Without Justin Hong-Kee Min, Shortcomings would be sour to watch. His character, Ben, floats through Randall Park’s directorial debut with a mountain of unlikability. Throughout the audience has watched Ben be awful to his girlfriend, his best friend, his best friend’s new girlfriend, a new date, a woman he dates for three weeks, and so on and so forth. He isn’t amicable in any way, opting instead for self-serving, sarcastic remarks that place him above the person, place, or thing he’s discussing. Somehow, though, Shortcomings is enjoyable, at times even delightful.
Min balances his nastiness with just enough charisma and charm to save his character and save the film. Ben––and all the credit to Min for this––cannot be faulted for his relatability, though most viewers will assume and hope they’re better people than him. Min imbues this asshole with such specificity that Ben becomes just one of those acquaintances who are a dime a dozen, the person that gets invited to events only to rag on them fifteen minutes later. Screenwriter Adrian Tomine, who also wrote the graphic novel of the same name, puts Ben squarely in the center, soaking up the spotlight, and often stomping all over it.
Joining Ben on this half-journey of self-discovery is Alice (Sherry Cola), his lesbian best friend who finds dates and dates often. Ben’s girlfriend leaves for an internship in New York and the film jumps into chapters, most of which consist of Park’s protagonist being unkind to someone showing him part of themselves. He meets a girl; then he’s unkind. He meets a new girl; then he’s even meaner. The cycle continues; Ben doesn’t seem to change.
Park’s direction is assured, if not simplistic. Though in the positive sense: characters drive this story, and the direction doesn’t take away from their experiences or growth. The title cards work as a sweet touch, while the segmented storytelling allows for brief moments of reprieve from constant sarcasm. The writing remains funny throughout, picking up on subtle dating cues and the effects of deep self-consciousness. Shortcomings is self-aware of its own––its characters’ own––shortcomings; it’s a work for those that screw up continuously, those that are still figuring out adulthood.
The supporting cast all prove Shortcomings‘ worth over and over again––Cola, Timothy Simons, and Debby Ryan are standouts. Ryan is perfect for playing opposite Min, a vulnerable person who also isn’t fully honest from the get-go. Their moments provide some of the more playful banter, flares of romance amongst a sea of heartbreak.
Likely that some of Shortcomings will rub audiences the wrong way. People aren’t used to grating protagonists. They want someone to root for, to support, to love like a friend––a family member, a romantic partner. Park’s film instead holds up a mirror, a form of minor self-reflection for a society that treats dating others with little regard for them as people. Ben isn’t the first person to take their significant other for granted. He certainly isn’t the first to be slow to change, stuck in their ways, unable to get beyond the faults they clearly exhibit.
Park’s debut comedy leans on its cast and a smart screenplay to offer up a social commentary both bitter enough to make a point and agreeable enough to make people laugh, even leave with a smile on their faces. While it’s a tricky line to balance, Park (barely) pulls it off.
Shortcomings premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.