- Always Be My Maybe
- Directed by: Nahnatchka Khan
- Written by: Michael Golamco, Randall Park, Ali Wong
- Starring: Ali Wong, Randall Park
- Classification: N/A, 101 minutes
- 3 stars
Would we be talking about a low-key Netflix rom-com with two Asian leads if not for Crazy Rich Asians? Not likely, not without that movie becoming the highest-grossing theatrical rom-com in a decade last year, and confirming a major demand for Asian stars in Hollywood.
Whereas CRA dazzled with its lavish sets and exotic locations, Always Be My Maybe lives comfortably, but uproariously, in a post-CRA world without the weight of expectation and is the movie that should cement stars Randall Park and Ali Wong as comedic forces deserving of many, many more leading roles.
Always Be My Maybe follows the will they/won’t they between Marcus Kim (Park) and Sasha Tran (Wong), rewinding all the way back to San Francisco, 1996, as the two become best childhood friends (and nostalgically mining the nineties for its feel-good hip-hop soundtrack). After an endearingly awful singalong to D’Angelo, a rocking first time in the back seat of a Toyota Corolla and a flame-out at Burger King, we’re whisked forward to 2019. Sasha is now a hotshot celebrity chef who returns home to open a new restaurant – home being where Marcus has stayed in stasis, working for his dad’s maintenance company, getting high and still playing with his high-school band.
In interviews, Park and Wong note that they’re long-time friends who’ve always wanted to do a rom-com together. Now that they’ve gone and written it themselves, the result is a dream script for the duo that not only plays to their strengths but also purposefully lets them play against type. Park is best known as the affable, well-meaning TV dad on ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat (where director Nahnatchka Khan also hails from); it’s wonderful to see him here as a stubborn slacker-type with sex appeal. On the other hand, Wong made her name with bawdy Netflix stand-up specials about sex and motherhood, but here gets to let loose, so to speak, as an A-type career woman with the sharpest of tongues. Though, when she lashes out at an ex – ”I cannot believe I wasted my prime reproductive years on you!” – that’s pure Wong. Of course, there is also the little milestone of their playing romantic leads, opposite each other, as Asian actors. That fact isn’t lost on me, but it is refreshingly not the most important one.
Past the performances, the remarkable part of Always Be My Maybe is how the film inhabits Asian-American culture. For one, this is the first time I can recall Park explicitly playing a Korean role not named Kim Jong-un (thanks for that, Seth Rogen and James Franco), while Wong’s Sasha is Vietnamese and cooks Vietnamese fusion food, a nod to her mother’s own heritage. There are poignant appearances by parental characters, figuring around filial piety and immigrant experience, that would ring true to many Asians watching at home. And Sasha’s career in restaurants allows for a smart through-line that riffs on the pretensions of fine dining (one dish seen: “the flavour of caesar salad”) alongside more humble scenes of Southeast Asian cooking. And, minor spoiler: Keanu Reeves makes a surreal appearance, in a raucous reclamation of the John Wick star as Hollywood’s most iconic Asian-Canadian-American. The cultural references here aren’t blaring signposts, more like authentic set dressing for the world of these characters. It feels real.
The film mostly takes care of the romantic tension, building out Marcus and Sasha’s inner lives and circumstances – just two complicated people who happen to be Asian. But an extra 20 minutes could have been useful as the story barrels toward its tidy make-happy conclusion with a sudden emotional about-face (guys, it’s okay for a rom-com to be two hours long!). As Game of Thrones recently taught us, it’s not the ending that matters, but how we got there. Daenerys deserved more, and so do Marcus and Sasha. The journey here, over all, is still worth it, full of Asians making jokes, talking dirty and getting it on – like any good rom-com.