If a certain celebrity cameo is hogging all the attention (deservedly so, to some degree, as it is wonderful), it’s far from the only thing worth praising in Netflix’s latest rom-com, Always Be My Maybe.
At one point, Marcus Kim (played by Randall Park) goes on a jag about “elevated” Asian cuisine. “Asian food shouldn’t be elevated,” Marcus shouts while shaving. “It should be authentic. Asian food shouldn’t be served in a shot glass, it should be served in a big ass bowl.”
Fitting then that Always Be My Maybe is essentially the movie equivalent of a big ass bowl. It has no pretensions toward haute cinema and it doesn’t disguise its influences or hide the narrative traditions it’s built upon. It’s the kind of straightforward rom-com mom used to make. Freed from any notion that it needs to upend genre conventions, it can focus on execution, on personalizing the formula and on reminding us why the formula became standard in the first place. Like Marcus Kim’s mom’s soup at the beginning of the film, it’s a simple recipe that highlights the quality ingredients.
In a rom-com, that starts with the two leads. The audience has to fall in love with the idea of them as a couple as much as they have to fall for each other in the story. I can’t remember the first place I saw Randall Park — maybe as Kim Jong-Un in The Interview? — but it seems like every time I’ve thought, “This guy needs more and bigger roles.”
Unlike, say, Ken Jeong, another Korean-American comedic actor, who hit hard (in The Hangover) and immediately seemed like he was everywhere, Park’s rise has been subtler and more gradual. He has 145 acting credits on IMDB but one could be forgiven for only knowing two or three of them. His acting is kind of understated too. He’s not big and broad, more of a tightrope walker as an actor, scampering lightly from broad comedy to earnest emotion and doing both so well you barely notice the transitions. A role like Marcus Kim — kind of a repressed adolescent who fronts a rap group called Hello Peril, works for his dad’s air conditioning business, and has never left his hometown — needs an actor like Park to keep it from becoming the same old man-child trope. Park plays Marcus with such dexterity that he’s never a simple punchline dispenser or plot device deliverer, always a fully formed human you could imagine sitting across the bar.
By contrast, I remember exactly where I was the first time I saw Ali Wong. It was at a place called the Gallery Cafe in San Francisco, an art gallery/coffee shop that had a comedy night. I remember because she was on “stage” (stage being a corner of the room temporarily cleared of tables) doing some kind of audience participation bit. I participated and she immediately made fun of the dumb t-shirt I was wearing (“Thanks, guy who shops at Urban Outfitters,” or something to that effect). I was hanging out, waiting for the open mic to start (probably run by Tony Sparks, like most San Francisco open mics), while she was one of a handful of the featured comics preceding the open mic’ers, the example of what we were striving to be.
That was in 2006 or 2007, and even then Wong had an air of “goin’ places” about her. I left the city for grad school and by the time I got back in 2010, Wong was already off in LA or New York with a budding comedy career, an SF comic other SF comics knew about, even if they didn’t personally know her. As I can’t remember which comic once put it, “San Francisco: they say if you can make it here… you still have to make it somewhere else.”
With movie roles and high-profile Netflix specials, it’s been nice seeing Wong become as recognized around the world as she once was just to the local comedy scene. And still as “Ali Wong: Bay Area comedian.”
Her role as Sasha Tran in Always Be My Maybe is a riff on the local-girl-makes-good story. The Vietnamese-American daughter of overworked shopkeepers, Sasha learns to cook with her neighbor Marcus’s mom and eventually leaves town to become a celebrity chef (hence Marcus’s bit about Asian cuisine). Having lost touch with Marcus, her childhood best friend until one weird hookup, she’s back in town to open a new restaurant while on a break with her fiance (Daniel Dae Kim from Lost, brilliant as a social climbing restaurateur). It’s there she reconnects with Marcus, thanks to friends’ meddling and an air conditioning coincidence. Essentially, it’s Sweet Home Alabama transposed to San Francisco.
Always Be My Maybe — directed by Nahnatcha Khan and written by Wong, Park, and Michael Golamco — borrows liberally from other movies and without shame. It’s the structure of Sweet Home Alabama with the food porn of Crazy Rich Asians and The Trip movies, the personal specificity of Lady Bird, and the comedic celebrity cameo scene by way of countless Judd Apatow movies.
That cameo, by the way, (which other sites have already spoiled, do not @ me), feels less contrived than the usual Apatow version. It’s a scene we’ve seen many times, but Keanu Reeves is an inspired choice. Only a handful of non-comedic performers can really pull off comedy based on their own fictionalized personae, which requires an understanding (conscious or subconscious) of why people meme them. Keanu excels in his first crack, a performance right up there with the likes of Channing Tatum, Jason Momoa, Matthew McConaughey. It helps that he’s working with sharp writing. (“Do you have any dishes that play with the concept of time?” Keanu’s Keanu asks the waiter at an obnoxiously fancy restaurant.)
At the risk of sounding cliché, what ties Always Be My Maybe together is… well, love. Comfort food is more about care and execution than innovation. In this case, that means great performances — from the leads on down to the supporting actors, like James Saito and Michelle Buteau, who might actually get the most laughs, as Marcus’s father and Sasha’s bestie, respectively — and a setting close to the creators’ hearts.
With The Last Black Man In San Francisco also opening soon, it’s a one-two punch of San Francisco similar to what Blindspotting and Sorry To Bother You did for Oakland last year. True to the genre, Always Be My Maybe is setting specific if not necessarily setting forward. There are the requisite references to gentrification and Bohemianism run amok (Marcus’ bassist, played by Charlyne Yee, is described as having been raised by “three moms”), but it’s never preachy, and rarely does it feel like it’s reaching too hard for a joke or a social issue.
Always Be My Maybe isn’t going to change the way you watch movies, but it’s familiar in the best sense of it. And it does what so few movies do lately: it feels natural.