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Say yes to ‘Always Be My Maybe’

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While I would argue that reports of the demise of the romantic comedy have been greatly exaggerated, it’s tough to deny that things have changed with regards to that particular genre.

Movie studios aren’t as interested in investing in mid-budget standalone films anymore. It’s all about massive tentpole franchises with a smattering of awards bait and a handful of mini- and microbudget niche offerings. Rom-coms aren’t really big box office anymore.

But Netflix doesn’t need you to make your way to the movie theater. They just need you to click a couple of buttons on your remote. They need your eyeballs. And they have discovered that an effective avenue to procure those eyeballs is the romantic comedy.

The streaming service’s latest – and arguably best – entry into that arena is “Always Be My Maybe,” starring Ali Wong and Randall Park. It’s from a script co-written by Wong and Park, along with Michael Golamko; the film is directed by Nahnatchka Khan, best known for her work on TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”

“Always Be My Maybe” is not a wheel reinvention; all of the people involved clearly have a sense for how rom-coms work and are unconcerned with change for the sake of change. Instead, the film revolves around subverting tropes – sometimes subtly, other times not so much – while still existing within the standard stylistic framework of the genre.

The year is 2003. Sasha Tran and Marcus Park live next door to one another in San Francisco. Sasha’s parents are hard workers, but their industriousness leaves Sasha to her own devices. Over the years, she winds up spending much of her time next door with the Parks. Sasha and Marcus are best friends, but a family tragedy leads to them making rash decisions – decisions that lead to their estrangement.

Flash forward to the present day. Sasha (Ali Wong) is a fast-rising celebrity chef, the darling of the culinary scene. Her very pregnant high school BFF Veronica (Michelle Buteau, “Isn’t It Romantic”) is her restaurant manager in Los Angeles. Her fiancé is a handsome and successful brand innovator and tastemaker named Brandon (Daniel Dae Kim, “Hellboy”). She walks red carpets and mingles with celebrities – a grand life. Or so it would seem.

Meanwhile, Marcus (Randall Park) is still living at home with his dad Harry (James Saito, TV’s “The Terror”). He works for his dad’s heating services company and is still playing in the band – named Hello Peril – that he founded in back in high school.

Sasha is scheduled to go to San Francisco for a stretch to open a new restaurant; at the last minute, Brandon decides to go abroad instead (and put their wedding on hold). Sasha goes it alone, arriving at the rental house only to discover that Veronica has hired Marcus’s dad to do some heating work. The Sasha-Marcus reunion is suitably awkward, made more so by Harry’s willful obliviousness to said awkwardness.

Gradually, the two old friends begin to reconnect. Sasha goes to check out a Hello Peril gig and is delighted to discover that the band is actually pretty good. Marcus introduces Sasha to his free-spirited weirdo girlfriend Jenny (Vivian Bang, “Stuck”). They start spending more time together, slowly rediscovering their former closeness. Sasha breaks up with Brandon and eventually takes up with Keanu Reeves (as himself) just as Marcus starts to wonder if the flame is reignited.

Alas, it’s never that easy. While the “will-they-won’t-they” questions get answered pretty quickly, the relative permanence of the situation is less clear. Sasha’s a shooting star, always on the move to the next opportunity. Marcus is firmly anchored in his neighborhood, uninterested in being anywhere else. Something’s got to give – but what?

“Always Be My Maybe” has a lot going for it. Certain things pop out. The fact that it’s a film featuring Asian-American leads that isn’t solely about their ethnic identities, for instance; yes, cultural context is a part of it, but only a part. The fact that the leads aren’t forced to fundamentally change by the circumstances of the story. The fact that Wong and Park have a real-life friendship that informs their chemistry. The fact that Keanu Reeves is playing Keanu Reeves.

A fair amount of the narrative is boilerplate rom-com stuff, sure, but that’s OK – people aren’t watching rom-coms for some sort of earth-shattering aesthetic revelation. They want a few laughs and a relationship they can root for. And in that sense, “Always Be My Maybe” definitely delivers.

Wong has wisely resisted the temptation to transfer too much of her stand-up persona to this film; too often, comedians get trapped by their own success when they move to movies. The swagger is still there, but harnessed. Park is almost preternaturally likable, a skill he uses to full effect here. The two of them together are delightful, energetic and zippy; their off-screen affection transfers. Saito has a couple of solid scenes; Buteau and Bang make strong choices as well.

And then there’s Keanu Reeves. He takes hold of his internet boyfriend image and gleefully subverts it. All the gentle introspection and aw-shucks congeniality? He cranks it up and snaps off the knob, giving us 15ish minutes of unadulterated douchebaggery. He is smug and pretentious in all the ways the real Reeves isn’t, but absolutely could be. For real, folks – this movie goes from “pretty good” to “great” because of the time we spend with Keanu.

“Always Be My Maybe” isn’t a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be. It is a well-made piece of romantic comedy, smart and funny and sweet – a movie for which it is absolutely worth pressing a few remote buttons.

[4 out of 5]

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