Shortcomings is directed by Randall Park and stars Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, and Ally Maki as three young urban professionals attempting to navigate relationships and anti-Asian prejudice. Ben’s (Min) life is upended when his girlfriend Miko (Maki) moves to New York for an internship, and by the midpoint of the film, he and his best friend Alice (Cola) follow her.
Shortcomings has its funny moments, and the film is at its best when it relies on Cola’s comedic talents. The dramatic moments work insofar as the film has some incisive portrayals of racial dynamics. But too much of Shortcomings concerns itself with Ben’s relationship troubles, and he’s simply too unlikeable to garner much sympathy.
Shortcomings is clearly inspired by or to some degree imitating the Woody Allen comedies of the seventies, eighties, and nineties. The main character is a hyper-intellectual, emotionally stunted cynic who seeks the love and companionship of women whom he fails to fully understand. All of that is fine matter for comedic drama, but the film must be constructed so that the audience can relate to the main character. Even Allen’s meanest movie that features his most unlikeable character, Deconstructing Harry (1997), knows to make everyone around Harry nearly as unhinged as he is (the film begins with a former partner threatening Harry with a gun).
In Shortcomings, all of the other characters are more interesting and much less narcissistic than Ben. Even the characters that the film seems to put down are more emotionally aware than the film’s protagonist, on whom Shortcomings spends the most time and whose ultimate success we’re meant to cheer for. Making matters worse is that by the end of the film, it’s not even clear if Ben has learned all that he needs to understand, and there is no poetic justice in his failures, such as the final moments of Manhattan (1979) or Annie Hall (1977).
Good movies can be made about people with shortcomings; in fact, almost all good movies have flawed protagonists. But Shortcomings’ failures have to do with the film’s flat arc and its story construction. Randall Park is a talented director, but Shortcomings fundamentally did not work.