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‘Shortcomings’ Review: Is This the Most Irritating Man on Earth?

Ben (Justin H. Min) could’ve been the next Eric Rohmer. He’s certainly got the ego for it. But instead, the wannabe big-shot director is channeling his loudmouthed energy into a less-desired job: manager at a tiny arts theater in Berkeley, California. It’s no Hollywood—but at least he gets to watch movies for free.

Shortcomings, Fresh Off the Boat star Randall Park’s directorial debut (and based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine), opens on the perfect portrait of Ben’s asshole tendencies. Ben can’t stop complaining about a movie he just saw with his way-too-cool girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), who didn’t mind the film all that much. The movie, Ben argues, is a lazy attempt at Asian representation—a man (Ronny Chieng) and a woman (Stephanie Hsu) try to buy a penthouse, but a racist front desk worker denies their application. Surprise! The pair actually owns the entire apartment building. The racist man is fired; the couple celebrates; roll credits. Miko enjoyed the film. Ben won’t quit while he’s ahead, continually trashing the audience for cheering over a bad film simply because it featured Asian representation.

This is, in essence, the gist of Shortcomings, a slow-paced indie comedy about a thirtysomething slacker who can’t be anything other than cynical about his sad life. Shortcomings, however, offers a slight twist on the idle couch-loafing character: As a young Asian man, Ben struggles to fully embrace his racial identity. He has an Asian girlfriend, but he can’t stop watching porn featuring white girls. Ben has the hots for the white girl he just hired at the theater, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), an awkward germaphobe with a godawful band. Plus, as an aspiring filmmaker who prefers the works of John Cassavetes and Rohmer, Ben grapples with the absence of people who look like him—or rather, people who look like him and have storylines that feel realistic—in cinema.

Ben’s life is already quite drab, but it’s made even more so by the fact that his girlfriend is leaving town for an opportunity for which he would’ve killed. Miko has been offered a three-month-long internship at a film production company in New York City. After spying on Ben’s white girl porn search history, Miko finally decides to take the internship, storms out, and heads to the Big Apple. Ben is left to figure out his post-breakup life with his dorky cinema employees and his best friend, the flirtatious Alice (Sherry Cola).

The problem Shortcomings faces is the one any movie with a purposefully irritating lead has: All of the other characters are far more interesting than the man with whom we spend so much of the runtime. Alice, who flirts with every waitress and goes to house parties on the regular, is a far more engaging character than Ben. Even Autumn, who is currently working on an art installation featuring photos of her pee, presents as an intriguing youngster with a creative flair. Ben’s only personality trait, on the other hand, is that he hates everything about his life but is too afraid to say so out loud.

Justin H. Min and Tavi Gevinson in Shortcomings

But Ben finds hope—and the movie really hits its groove, thanks to an optimistic spark—after meeting Sasha (Debby Ryan) at a “gay party” with Alice. Alice warns Ben not to get involved, but, angry that Miko won’t return his calls, he strikes up a connection with Sasha against Alice’s advice. But Sasha can’t stop mentioning her ex Pilar, who she broke up with just three months ago. It’s no surprise that, just a few weeks into seeing Ben, Sasha goes back to Pilar—not because she misses Pilar all that much, but because an irritating Ben really scared her out of reentering the dating pool.

“Listen, I know you’re going to want to blame this on society or on my sexuality or on your race or whatever,” Sasha tells Ben. “But one day, I hope you’ll understand that this really is just about you.”

Ben doesn’t understand at all, which finally leads to some movement in his character arc. Instead, he tries to reconcile with Miko by traveling to New York, where Alice has since moved as well. Miko is now dating an older white guy, Leon (Timothy Simons), which sends Ben into a spiral over the fetishization of Asian women, the idea that Miko might just be sleeping with Leon because he’s an artist, and his own self-deprecation. He and Alice dive into a conversation about who’s fetishizing whom (isn’t Ben fetishizing white women by only watching porn starring them and sleeping with white girls a decade younger than him?) and the complexities of these relationships.

Shortcomings excels in these scenes, where Ben is willing to reckon with his unhappiness and debate his takes with the fascinating folks who surround him. It’s a shame we don’t get to this point until around halfway through the film, however. Ben’s rant about representation and porn search history is enough to give us the gist of his gloomy outlook on life—alas, the movie wastes time on awkward dates, the arts theater closing, millions of voicemails left for Miko, and a handful of naval-gazing breakfasts with Alice before any of the real introspection can start.

Justin H. Min and Ally Maki in Shortcomings

Still, there is enough substance to Shortcomings beyond Ben’s depressing, one-note life to make it a meaningful watch. The film is a takedown on sad guys like Ben, who over-explain films and disrespect their powerful girlfriends, but it’s also a rumination on how, exactly, guys like Ben end up where they do. But after a few pensive moments, some fighting with friends and enemies, a job change, and a handful of failed relationships, has Ben learned anything to improve his life? With an open-ended conclusion that feels more sufficient than satisfying, the verdict on that is yet to come.

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