Few actors put themselves in the crosshairs quite like Randall Park. As both a comedic talent and a writer, he has lambasted himself dozens of times. Yet Park’s cross-medium abilities continue to place him among the most talented performers in Hollywood. Park takes a supporting role in his directorial debut, Shortcomings, but his voice carries through regardless. While an imperfect comedic vehicle, Shortcomings combines self-deprecating humor and refreshingly honest portraits of vein protagonists to make the most of its story.
Ben (Justin H. Min) hit his quarter-life crisis. While his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) pursues a career in film, Ben seems put off by the current industry. He works at a struggling art-house movie theater but appears unwilling to finish his education. His best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) dates around but needs a change of scenery. When both Miko and Alice move to the East Coast, Ben feels the need to follow them there. However, what he finds forces him to confront tough truths.
Park lets the screenplay of Shortcomings take center stage, and Adrian Tomine‘s willingness to confront difficult conversations quickly becomes an asset. Park and Tomine examine the struggle of balancing one’s ethnic background with the concept of selling out. They let their characters wander into unpopular positions but do the leg work to make this feel authentic. Most of us in the film world know these characters, even if their names and backgrounds differ. Park lets his actors build their characters from a realistic foundation, and their flourishes become more pronounced.
Min and Cola take center stage, and both deliver genuinely excellent performances. Min plays an unlikable man who fits into a long lineage of man-child protagonists. Even so, everything about Ben feels like a unique interpretation of the trope. Min charms when the screenplay asks him to, and just before we think he’s learned a lesson, he crumbles. Some will find his character too challenging to root for, but he represents a troubled, self-loathing honesty that rarely gets put on screen today. It’s an exciting performance that adds to Ming’s impressive resume.
Cola gets plenty of showcase moments. She’s not only the funniest performance by far, but she gets many of Shortcomings’ standout moments. Yet the power of her emotional breakthroughs makes Cola genuinely memorable. It’s difficult to speak to a friend that hits rock bottom. Yet only those with close connections can speak truths when we need them the most. Thanks to the chemistry she’s built with Min, their showdowns ooze with bold honesty.
While their performances carry Shortcomings, others in the cast get an opportunity to shine. Maki creates a beautiful performance, especially with her non-verbals. However, her lack of screen time leaves us wanting more. In the future, she’s bound to give a star-making performance. Timothy Simmons and Sonoya Mizuno both ceed the starlight for high-energy supporting roles. Both are immensely overqualified but are perfect fits for Shortcomings. Simmons’ self-deprecating performance elicits a laugh a minute. Mizuno becomes the audience surrogate, telling off characters for inappropriate and juvenile actions.
However, the one area where the script falls short comes with Autumn (Tavi Gevinson) and Sasha (Debby Ryan). Both actresses do a fine job, but the characters feel underwritten. While Sasha gets to step outside the Chasing Amy mold originally envisioned for her, both characters are almost exclusively defined through the protagonist’s lust for them. Frankly, the movie gets to its more exciting aspects without their storylines, so it feels a little bloated when we spend time there.
Finally, while Park understands the screenplay is his best asset, the direction still feels routine. There are moments where it’s genuinely excellent, especially as characters reach emotional realizations. However, it otherwise looks like a run-of-the-mill studio comedy. It spends too long on some jokes and not enough time on others. While uneven, the highs of Shortcomings are excellent. While Park never aspires for experimental or nontraditional aspects of this story, it might be nice to see him establish a more unique visual style the next time out.