Always Be My Maybe (2019)
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
Dir. Nahnatchka Khan; Ali Wong, Randall Park, Keanu Reeves
Following close on the heels of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) comes another romantic comedy focused on an Asian-American love story; Always Be My Maybe (2019) stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film. Crazy Rich Asians delved deeply into complex family relationships and was often painful and emotional. Always Be My Maybe does not achieve the same effect. To be fair, the film’s casting is spot-on, and the performances each actor delivers are the film’s greatest strength. But aside from the fact that it focuses on an Asian-American love story, as a romantic comedy it is nothing special.
The film focuses on Sasha Tran (Wong) and Marcus Kim (Park), who have been friends since they were growing up in San Francisco. They were inseparable as kids, but after an awkward fling as teenagers they drift apart. Years later, Tran is a celebrity chef engaged to successful restauranteur Brendan Choi (Daniel Dae Kim), while Marcus is still living at home and working in the family business with his dad. When Sasha returns home to open a new restaurant in San Francisco, the two reconnect, and the rest is history.
Wong and Park have great chemistry together and work together onscreen really well, and it helps that they are both hilarious and have great comedic timing. While Wong’s Sasha exudes confidence and success, Park’s Marcus is more awkward and bumbling. When we first see him as an adult, he’s smoking weed and having a dance-off with himself in front of his bedroom mirror. The rest of the cast is also strong; I especially love a surprising but still hysterical performance by Keanu Reeves, playing himself as Sasha’s new boyfriend. He wears lensless glasses, asks his waiter if the restaurant serves a dish that “plays with time,” and absolutely oozes pretension. At one point, he cries while eating his dinner as he listens to the recorded screams of the animal as it was killed. Watching him portray a parody of himself was an entirely unnecessary part of the film, but also so much fun. Vivian Bang, as Marcus’s girlfriend Jenny, is quirky and sweet, and Michelle Buteau as Sasha’s best friend Veronica quietly steals every scene in which she appears. Together, they make up an all-star cast with no weak links.
The film also succeeds in focusing on stories and characters that are less-often portrayed. Always Be My Maybe focuses on a uniquely Asian-American love story and incorporates aspects of Asian-American life into the film, from speaking Cantonese to cooking certain recipes to taking off your shoes when you enter a home. Veronica is pregnant and having a child with her wife. And Sasha is a successful, intelligent and wealthy woman of color juggling all of the pressures that come with such status. The film’s apt social commentary is refreshing to see in a mainstream film.
Yet the problem is that the film lacks follow-through, particularly on some of these same storylines. Despite the fact that Sasha is an amazing chef, we rarely see her cook or try out new recipes in her restaurant. We don’t see her working hard across the years to achieve her fame; we never learn quite how her relationship with her parents has evolved, only that it’s difficult. All of this leads to a character who feels half-baked, only exhibiting certain qualities when it is convenient without any backstory behind them. With Marcus, there is little development behind the loss of his mom and how that affected him or how he grapples with feelings of failure and success opposite Sasha. I know that a romantic comedy may not be the place for such details and perhaps I’m looking for more than is truly necessary. But just because it’s a romantic comedy doesn’t mean that it has to feel shallow. In Bridesmaids (2011), for instance, there are heartfelt, emotional scenes of the characters interacting with each other and with their families, talking about their husbands and children, discussing issues that have no real bearing on the plot as a whole. As a result, we get a fuller picture of who they are. In Always Be My Maybe, we already know how the story is going to end up; around such a predictable plot, there should be well-developed characters in order to flesh out the film and make it stand out.
I look forward to other films or projects from Wong and Park (and if anyone hasn’t watched Wong’s comedy specials on Netflix, Baby Cobra (2016) and Hard Knock Wife (2018), I would highly recommend them. Wong is vulgar but hilarious as she discusses pregnancy, marriage, and her career — all while being 7.5 months pregnant). But despite an utterly charming cast, Always Be My Maybe did not quite live up to my expectations. It’s not a bad film; it’s well-acted, fun, and unique in its representation, but it also lacks depth and adequate character development. As a result, it falls somewhat flat.