Always Be My Maybe, the Netflix-produced rom-com starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, caused a bit of a social media stir on its release day. People were excited that another film led by an all Asian-American cast, written by all Asian-American writers, had received prominent billing on Netflix. But was it any good? The sad truth is that while Always Be My Maybe is a nice film, funny at times, it’s nothing more than a generic, paint-by-numbers rom-com we’ve seen countless times before.
Ali Wong plays Sasha Tran, a successful celebrity Chef whose life is shaken when her douchebag fiancé (played to douchebag perfection by Daniel Dae Kim) decides to end their engagement. Her life reconnects with her childhood friend, the talented but slacker musician Marcus Kim (Randall Park) whose path has gone a slightly different way. Their inverse socio-economic situation is a big part of the film; rich girl dating poor boy- and makes for sometimes funny situations. It’s a common story that is sprinkled with a little Asian-American personality but can’t get past any of the rom-com stereotypes we’ve seen countless times before. Wise, humble father keeping perennially underachieving son in check? Check. Goofy friends providing instant cheap jokes? Check. Boy/girl makes terrible mistake before the grand public display of remorse? Check. Check, check, check. Even the Keanu Reeves cameo, playing an exaggerated version of himself, is just a little off. His portrayal of the jerk version of himself just doesn’t sit right; almost as if it is impossible to suspend the belief that Reeves is a giant, self-centred egomaniac of epic proportions. Can’t do it, because we all know that he isn’t.
If there is a bright spot to Always Be My Maybe its that of Ali Wong. She’s working with a limited canvas (surprising because the main cast are the film’s writers) and shines quite brightly. Wong is a star; brilliant, funny, charismatic- and when she’s able to tap into the incredible energy and humor of her stand-up, the screen lights up with acerbic wit and humor. She’s just shackled by the rom-com’s fear of doing anything outside the rom-com box that she doesn’t get enough opportunity to really let loose. The rest of the cast are commendable without being memorable; all fitting themselves in the rom-com mold. Randall Park proves that being a slacker is universal, regardless of skin color- a role that would have been filled by someone like Jason Biggs if this film was made in the early 00s. The rest of the cast are OK without being too forgettable- something that at least doesn’t detract from the film. By the film’s predictable end, we are left with neither terrible disappointment or excitement- just a sense of nonchalance.
Netflix has a serious movie problem. They are all mostly terrible to mediocre at best. Thankfully, Always Be My Maybe is a little closer to the latter than the former, but really doesn’t do much outside the confines of your average, generic rom-com that we’ve seen countless times before. The only real difference is that instead of seeing Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, or Rachel Leigh Cook and Freddie Prinze Jr, we see Ali Wong and Randall Park. I suppose, in the end, it is some sort of achievement confirming that Asian-American stories are just as boring and generic as everyone else’s.
Always Be My Maybe is streaming now on Netflix.
Film Review: Booksmart
Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.
The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.
The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).
Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).
Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.
So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.
Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.
Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins