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.