Not rich, not quite crazy, but culturally grounded Asians

Randall Park and Ali Wong play two childhood friends who always get on each other's nerves in Always Be My Maybe.
Randall Park and Ali Wong play two childhood friends who always get on each other's nerves in Always Be My Maybe.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Comic romance of two childhood friends is told at easygoing pace, supported by Keanu Reeves and Daniel Dae Kim as narcissists

REVIEW / ROMANTIC COMEDY

ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE (PG13)

102 minutes/now showing on Netflix/3.5 stars

The story: Sasha Tran and Marcus Kim (played by Ali Wong and Randall Park as adults) are best friends as children. But after Marcus' mother dies, things change between them and a botched attempt at intimacy leads to their estrangement.

Fifteen years pass. Sasha, now a celebrity chef, reconnects with Marcus, who is an air-conditioner technician and struggling musician.

Fans of Ali Wong's Netflix stand-up shows Baby Cobra (2016) and Hard Knock Wife (2018), now showing on Netflix, might be wishing hard for this movie to carry the same raucously vulgar energy. They will have to wait.

There is little here of the comedienne who has joked about organs wrecked by childbirth, the unsexiness of sex with the intent to conceive and how she (Chinese-Vietnamese) and her husband (Fili-pino-Japanese) keep the marriage strong by uniting in their dislike of Koreans.

Instead, they will find a tale of two childhood friends who adore each other but drive each other crazy, told at an easygoing pace that allows for plenty of character-driven dramatic moments.

A strong supporting cast is given a generous amount of space to show off comedic chops.

Keanu Reeves, playing an aggressively self-absorbed version of himself, has received raves. But his work pales in comparison to the performance of stand-up comic and podcaster Michelle Buteau, who steals the show as the wise and wicked Veronica, Sasha's assistant.

Unlike other American shows with Asian characters who feel like race-blind diversity hires - they are white in everything but physical appearance - Marcus and Sasha are unabashedly grounded in their cultures.

Marcus' mother Judy (Susan Park) is proud of her kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) recipe; the Kims wear sandals indoors while Sasha's parents despise any service that requires tipping.

That last sentiment is milked for laughs, but director Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off The Boat, 2015 to present), working with a screenplay penned by Randall Park (who stars in Fresh Off The Boat), Wong and Michael Golamco, stays away from self-deprecating jokes or, worse, self-hating Asian humour.

The cultural notes are struck with a light touch, with an emphasis on showing that Asianness can be manifested in myriad ways - through Marcus' rap-rock act, Sasha's culinary style and parenting styles which are anything but tiger-like.

The core Sasha-Marcus romance is kept straightforward, perhaps too much so, such that it falls into predictability and unearned last-minute redemptions.

Wong's hard-driving chef and Park's slacker man-child, however, feel much more real and likeable than a certain crazy rich couple from another film. The pair are so relentlessly decent, in fact, they become slightly cloying.

Sasha's weakness for narcissists (one played by Daniel Dae Kim and the other by Reeves) is a flaw that could have been explored for comic potential, but that door is sadly left closed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2019, with the headline 'Not rich, not quite crazy, but culturally grounded Asians'. Print Edition | Subscribe