' ' Cinema Romantico: Always Be My Maybe

Monday, June 10, 2019

Always Be My Maybe

Everything at stake in “Always Be My Maybe”, whether it’s love, food, community, or music, concerns authenticity. Of course, authenticity can be difficult to achieve in a genre as formulaic as the rom com, which director Nahnatchka Khan’s Netflix film is, generally required to hit certain narrative beats at certain intervals, which “Always Be My Maybe” faithfully does, never mind montages, which are not relied on to move the plot too much, thankfully, but nevertheless still feel intrusive in a movie trying to renovate an existing sort of screenplay structure. Still, despite such predictability in the nuts and bolts, the motivations here feel earned and true, never obligatory, and the world these characters inhabit feels paramount to who they are even if fewer customary establishing shots of the Golden Gate Bridge might have been nice.

Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) is childhood best friends with Marcus Kim (Randall Park), having spent as much time with his family as hers, learning to cook with Marcus’s mother. But when Marcus’s mother unexpectedly dies, it sends both her son and Sasha spiraling, culminating in his car’s backseat where the movie’s periodic propensity for unmasking clichés is demonstrated by comically presenting, ah, automobile sex as the irregular, uncomfortable act it actually is. This ends in a shot from above where Wong’s gift for transmitting terror purely through facial expression denotes the splintering apart to come, her decamping to Los Angeles and becoming a celebrity chef while he stays behind in San Francisco. Circumstances, however, intervene when she returns home to open a new restaurant, an obvious device lent humorous truth in how Michelle Buteau, as Sasha’s assistant, plays matchmaker for these ex-friends with impudence rather than coyness.

Marcus has remained home partly because of emotional stasis but also to care for his ailing father, emblemizing the Asian focus on elders, and also his community, represented by his band, one that proudly just plays the block in his neighborhood where palpably POC crowds cheer him on. Sasha’s celebrity chef status and culinary genius, on the other hand, never stands for much more than a platform to crack wise about what Emeril might have wearily lamented as New California Cuisine, using it as counterpoint to more traditional Asian home-cooking, not just in what young Sasha makes with Marcus’s mother but in the brief shot of her making spam and rice for dinner when she’s left home alone. These latter details feel profound, and might have been profounder still, lending true weight to her ultimate career decision, had the juxtaposition between the two schools of dining not been so glaring.

That send-up of high-concept cuisine is furthered in the film’s funniest, and surely destined to be most talked about (and GIFd), passage involving Sasha’s new beau Keanu Reeves, which is to say Keanu Reeves as Keanu Reeves, going out to dinner. Reeves is sensational, wholly sincere by being wholly and sincerely in on the joke, playing himself with such loopy gusto that his inane mysticism shrewdly appeals to bleeding hearts and those who mock bleeding hearts alike as if Keanu, and Keanu alone, might well, in the space of a Netflix rom com, bring us all together for a few uproarious minutes. Of course, it says something that the film’s single most animated sequence belongs to Keanu and not the film’s true stars. Yes, Park gets to play off Keanu to humorous effect throughout their characters’ escalating confrontation, but Wong is mostly just there.

If this whole bit successfully puts into perspective for her character the vapidity of celebrity culture, it also puts into perspective how Wong, a comic with dynamic vocal inflections is rarely allowed to similarly cut loose. The closest she comes is telling off her tedious boyfriend by phone, inevitably ending with a gaggle of stone-faced people overhearing, where the ultimate punchline isn’t even hers. She co-wrote the script, and it’s admirable that she might delineate moments for other people, but there are droves of rom com leading ladies and it’s disappointing to see her more frequently inhabit the archetype than transcend it.

Still, if the script takes Wong’s character to an obvious end point, it never betrays her intellect, allowing her to stay true to who she is without needlessly sacrificing something in the name of drama. Ditto Marcus, whose own arc is as much about coming into his own as it is falling in love. And though Wong and Park’s romantic chemistry isn’t electric, that’s by design, two friends trying to negotiate tricky emotional terrain and find their way back to what left them confused so long ago, rendered in a car scene rhyming with the first one epitomizing the sudden joy of seeing clearly now. 

No comments: