Always Be My Maybe hits familiar notes bolstered by the strength of its leads
by Jeremy Fogelman
When I saw Crazy Rich Asians last year, I wondered if it was finally a step in the right direction of mainstream acceptance of romantic leads of Asian descent. I still feel it was a case of the “elevated” rom-com, with the strengths the three primary female characters and the well done production design. The plot itself was fairly thin, but it showed promise for something “next” to come.
Always Be My Maybe isn’t exactly that. The movie comes from director Nahnatchka Khan, creator of my beloved Don’t Trust the B-- in Apartment 23 as well as the Constance Wu and Randall Park sitcom Fresh off the Boat. It is co-written by the two leads, Ali Wong and Randall Park, along with TV writer Michael Golamco. One thing that permeates the film is a sense of personality, and the chemistry between the Wong and Park feels sharp, like a close friendship of many years.
Which naturally, they have in real life. Unfortunately I didn’t really feel the romantic chemistry so much, which also makes sense given their history. Wong plays Sasha Tran and Park plays Marcus Kim, two childhood friends who move into a quick romance and breakup in their teenage years. After this, we catch up years later where Sasha is a famous chef and restaurateur, often referred to as an “Asian Oprah”. In contrast, Marcus works with his father in their HVAC business and is an underachiever with mild dreams as a musician.
There’s an interesting thematic element there, the high achiever versus low achiever, each with a sort of pride in their choices in life. It is even slightly touched on, but eventually the movie also dips into the negative perspective many men have about women more successful than they are. That part feels more regressive instead of progressive.
Of course the primary story of the movie is the cut and paste reconnection between Marcus and Sasha as they start a new friendship and maybe romance? After that, the beats are all fairly predictable, starting with the throwing aside of the old “wrong for you” significant others -- like Marcus’ hippie girlfriend Jenny played by Vivian Bang, or Sasha’s cold, handsome jerk of a boyfriend Brandon, played by Daniel Dae Kim. Then there’s the inevitable hook up, the escalation, the big moment of “this is a big deal for me” with the contrasting “I’m insecure thus we’ll break up” and the inevitable reconciliation.
The movie is at its best when it focuses on the little, authentic touches of the lifestyle of Asian Americans often ignored by most movies. There’s also a heavily promoted scene with Keanu Reeves that indeed lives up to expectations. Ali Wong is a talented stand up comedian, and Randall Park is a great comic actor -- their co-writer is mainly known for mythic dramas like Grimm, and it’s hard to say what impact he had at all.
Nahnatchka Khan as a show-runner? Great. But as a director, she plays it very safe. The DP is industry veteran Tim Suhrstedt who’s done everything from The Wedding Singer to 38 episodes of Silicon Valley. Maybe that’s something that’s made a difference here, but the movie does feel very small and “television” looking.
The weird thing about the movie to me is that although there’s a lot to like about it, it isn’t nearly as funny nor as sexy as I’d hoped. Instead it simply feels like another step in the long road of making these sorts of movies with Asian leads. We’re a long way from the days of Romeo Must Die where the scene with Jet Li kissing Aaliyah was cut out of the movie. If we must go through the “better than average but not great” set of movies to get to the great movies, that’s a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.