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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Shortcomings is aptly titled; this movie has plenty of them.

Flaws

Ally Maki and Justin H. Min
Ally Maki and Justin H. Min

A life view totally defined by black and white, right and wrong, good and bad is usually whacked out of most people who go to college before they move out of the dorms. That holds true for most people.

But, of course, the world is full of people who believe there is always only one correct answer to any given question or only one valid point of view to any given topic. That is the one they hold.

Take Ben (Justin H. Min). Throwing back old school and channeling Henny Youngman, take him. Please! The guy is a totally self-absorbed jerk who dropped out of film studies at Berkeley after two years. He had dreams of writing a screenplay and making a history-defining movie, all funded on his credit card. None of that panned out the way he hoped. His moviemaking experience was a total disaster.

And yet, as Shortcomings opens, despite his own failures, Ben belittles an Asian movie which receives a rapturous reception at an Asian film festival. He writes it off as a garish mainstream hit. He’s that kind of jerk.

Personal Hell

Shortcomings is based on screenwriter Adrian Tomine’s own 2009 graphic novel about Ben and the close circle of friends and associates who put up with him. Ben’s a piece of work and makes for a challenging centerpiece in a movie.

It’s always a tricky proposition to focus a story on a person who is generally unlikable. Sure, Ben has his moments. But it’s primarily his quirky friends who compensate — at least as far as the moviegoing experience is concerned — for his lack of appeal.

Ben manages a struggling arthouse movie theatre in Berkeley and, naturally, the staff talk shop about movies constantly. That includes conspiracy theories, such as Snowpiercer being originally conceived as a sequel to Willy Wonka. Therein lies the entertainment value: Ben’s friends.

Even they can get stretched a little too thin, though, as is the case with Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), who joins the theatre crew as a box office attendant, but she also has a crazy side gig performing in a bizarre mashup between punk rock and performance art, which features a totally nude made dancer. But it gets worse. Autumn takes a picture of her pee every morning; it’s her statement on consumption and waste.

So. Yeah.

And Ben’s girlfriend of six years, Miko (Ally Maki), finally gives up on Ben and moves to New York for what she says is an internship, but she has a longer-term target in her sights.

Throw in his Korean lesbian friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), and it’s pretty astonishing Ben is so square given how relatively diverse the mindsets are surrounding him. “Square” is an old-school term, but it fits this guy who seems stuck in the past and who hasn’t budged in virtually every aspect of his life since high school, which is where his bad attitude originally led to his “outcast” status.

Structurally Unsound

Director Randall Park, a comedic actor who might be best known as Jimmy Woo in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, does well in what could be considered his first feature directorial effort. Given it’s only 92 minutes and the pace is crisp enough to keep the movie moving along, Shortcomings is bearable to a point. But, even so, Ben is so tiresome as a central character one wonders why anybody would put up with him for any length of time at all. Life is too short.

Ben’s the kind of guy who carries all kinds of biases. Asian guys with white girls is okay, but white guys (“Rice Kings”) with Asian girls is not okay. He constantly judges others while simultaneously excusing his own (considerable) indiscretions. What’s wrong for others is okay for him. But it’s not okay as a movie experience, even with all the virtue signals and modern relationship sensibilities that are thrown in as a counterpoint to Ben’s narrow mind.

Giving Shortcomings some credit, it is interesting how it all ends. His friends — short romantic successes, shorter romantic misfires, theatre employees, college pals — all end up in a good place. No matter what their challenges might be — one is kicked out of school for getting into a fight — they all find peace and success and at least a modicum of happiness.

Everybody except for Ben. Even a trip to New York only leads to more personal strife for Ben. So, there he his, back home in the Bay Area and just as miserable as ever. And, as one last dig, on his flight home to Berkeley from New York, Ben witnesses an older woman burst into tears while watching that Asian movie he so quickly dismissed, further signifying how out of touch Ben is with the whole wide world around him.

Point taken. Move on.