Review: Ali Wong and Randall Park continue rom-com revival with ‘Always Be My Maybe’
One of the brightest aspects of the rise of original films on Netflix is its resuscitation of the romantic comedy. Many of the freshest films produced by Netflix have been in that genre, including “Set It Up,” “Someone Great,” “The Kissing Booth” and the more youth-oriented “To All the Boys I Loved Before.” To that queue we can now add “Always Be My Maybe.”
One of the eternal appeals of the rom-com is the way they show people just living their lives — going to work, being at home, dealing with family problems and relationship issues. For all the idealization and aspiration that can be a part of the genre, at their core, they are about people.
In “Maybe,” Ali Wong plays Sasha Tran, a successful star chef, and Randall Park plays Marcus Kim, her childhood next-door neighbor who has become stuck in adulthood, playing music and still living at home. The two had been close friends growing up but had a falling out and went their separate ways after having sex while Marcus was in emotional free-fall following the death of his mother. Now, 16 years later, they are reunited to perhaps rekindle the romance that never quite was.
Written by Wong, Park and Michael Golamco, the film is the feature directing debut for Nahnatchka Khan, showrunner of the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat.” (That show stars Park and features Wong as a writer.) The title of the movie implies some kind of “My Best Friend’s Wedding”-style pact to keep each other on the back burner, but instead it plays out more as a “When Harry Met Sally”-like exploration of friendship and romance. When Sasha and Marcus reacquaint as adults, both are rethinking what might have been, but also looking at who they are now and what could lie ahead.
The movie is at its best when it is just Wong and Park. They have a strong but relaxed chemistry and each brings a lived-in authenticity to their characters. Wong’s explosive comedic persona, seen in her Netflix stand-up specials “Baby Cobra” and “Hard Knock Wife,” is counterbalanced by Park’s more laconic, slightly befuddled demeanor.
The film’s strong supporting cast includes Daniel Dae Kim as Sasha’s ex-fiancé, James Saito as Marcus’ father, Michelle Buteau as their mutual friend, plus Karan Soni and Charlyne Yi as Marcus’ bandmates. Keanu Reeves makes a brief appearance in a self-deprecating role that frankly wears thin fast. (Even the current Keanu Reeves revival has its limits.)
One delightful gag throughout the movie is whether or not Marcus’ band is actually any good. Having been together for many years without much success, they are suspected of being not great, but then their songs — created in collaboration between Park, Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born and musician and producer Dan the Automator — have a sneaky charm. (Dan the Automator also contributed music to the recent feature “Booksmart.”)
A similar attention to detail is given to the film’s food. Many of the elaborate dishes on-screen — at times played up for ridiculous laughs — were overseen by Niki Nakayama, chef of the notable L.A. restaurant n/naka.
Khan keeps the film moving at a brisk, breezy pace. The ease of inclusion and cultural specificity in the story — set in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York — aids the film’s contemporary, upbeat feeling. In an early scene, a young Sasha is shown by Marcus’ mother the multiple uses of scissors in a Korean kitchen. Later when, as a grown-up, Sasha is creating her modern Vietnamese cuisine, she still uses those same scissor techniques.
If what they each get from their growing relationship is somewhat predictable — Sasha learns to lighten up and Marcus is pushed to take himself more seriously — the movie captures the ways romantic love, friendship and family relationships can sometimes become confusingly intertwined.
“Always Be My Maybe” is pleasant without being particularly powerful, appealing if not exactly transformative. Landing somewhere on the second tier of the Netflix rom-com revival, the movie leaves a viewer just satisfied enough, wanting more. More from its writers/stars, more from its director, more movies reflecting a broader range of contemporary life as it is lived.
And even that want for more is part of the Netflix model, of course. The algorithm abides.
‘Always Be My Maybe’
Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, drug use/references and language
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts May 29, Vintage Los Feliz 3; available May 31 on Netflix
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