Part of the Summer 2019 Netflix Jubilee

At the risk of essentialising the rules of narrative (but what is genre, if not a shorthand for essentialising certain clusters of narrative tropes?), I think there's only one thing that a romcom actually, definitely needs to do in order to "work". It might work poorly - it might be a miserable, crabbed experience with no sense of humor and a terrible, flatfooted aesthetic, and most romcoms of the 21st Century have been just that - but in order to work as an object, it just needs to have a pair of human beings who at some point in the first half of the movie are not in a romantic relationship with each other, but who seem so well-suited to being in such a relationship that the viewing audience completely invests emotionally in seeing them form a couple. Maybe it's because they have good chemistry, maybe it's because they seem uncannily compatible, maybe they serve as vessels for our own terror of dying alone, maybe they're just real fucking gorgeous and we enjoy daydreaming about them being naked together. The point is, we want them to figure out how to overcome whatever obstacle keeps them apart, and we want to laugh (with them and at them) while they're doing it. Boom, you have a romantic comedy.

This does not strike me as being a terribly ridiculous bar to clear, given that narrative has been clearing it since before the existence of the most primitive version of the language I'm writing this review in, but it's more than Always Be My Maybe, one of the most buzzed-about entries in the ongoing Netflix Original romcom cycle, can manage. This is the story of two people who've been friends since they were children, who lost their virginity together, and who arrive in their early thirties still single and thrust together in a way that makes it clear that they will probably end up together just as soon as they get over their respective hang-ups, and I will say this on behalf of the film's psychological acuity: it does an exemplary job sketching out their hang-ups, and making them seem very important to the people in question. Suggesting that these people secretly desire each other, or would be good for each other, that is something the film does not do very well at all.

So who are these people? Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) is a celebrity chef who is in the whitest-hot point of her rise to fame, and she's returning home to California to oversee the opening of a major new restaurant, while dating her agent & manager, the handsome but much older Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim). Marcus Kim (Randall Park) co-operates an HVAC company with his dad (James Saito), while dating the flighty bundle of energy Jenny (Vivian Bang), and filling his nights as the frontman of a neighborhood rap group. They're reunited when the Kims get the job of installing an air conditioner in Sasha's rental unit - it is strongly implied, and then never pursued as a plot point, that they were deliberately brought together by Sasha's extremely pregnant assistant Veronica (Michelle Buteau) - and thus begins a dance by which both of them recall what huge crushes they used to have on each other, and one at a time deal with the annoying little plot points that keep them apart, starting with their obviously terrible partners.

It would be difficult to overstate how lifeless and grinding the screenplay, by Wong & Park themselves, along with Michael Golamco, is in moving through this extremely unimaginative variant on a formula (right down to the calculated quirkiness of the characters' professions and hobbies). The dialogue, in particular, is so horrible that it's almost charming: this is one of those films where people speak in immaculately-formed sentences that provide the viewer with exactly the correct piece of information at every given moment, interrupted by jokes that are all shaped with very mechanically correct cadences to resolve at a punchline that has announced itself sufficiently far in advance that we are saved the effort of having to think about it or respond to it. Also, the characters in the cast (almost all of whom are of East Asian descent) keep talking about their Asian-ness and explain to other Asians how e.g. they as Koreans are different from the Chinese, in ways that, I dunno, I've never been in an Asian-only space. But it feels like the script keeps glancing over its shoulder at the white people in audience, and it definitely doesn't ever feel like the words come naturally out of the characters' mouths.

The brittle dialogue and the formulaic plotting are a pretty lethal combination, and the flat, overlit quality to the cinematography (it unabashedly feels like a television aesthetic, though at least it avoids the awful habit of comedies in the late 2010s of having slapdash, sloppy editing) means that it's boring to look at on top of it; director Nahnatchka Khan is a TV producer, not even a TV director, and you definitely feel that in every bit of the film's grimly shiny look. It is a tedious, dull movie, and not even the celebrated cameo by Keanu Reeves as himself brightens it (really, the only thing his appearance in the movie does is to amplify how much of a shrill asshole Marcus is, with the movie viewing his petty reverse-snobbery as righteous indignation in the face of a famous jackass movie star, rather than just miserable whining).

But I will admit, in a vacuum, Wong and Park are both pretty fun and delightful. Not together - they have a profound lack of chemistry, with so little sparkle between them that Wong's performance actually suffers for how flat her line deliveries go when he's her scene partner. But in their individual scenes, both tap into something that feels alive and feisty about people who have pretty much figured out how their lives are meant to go, and who get a bit surly and annoyed at discovering that their hormones would like to fuck that up. It is far better as a study of egotists being thrust into a confrontation with their egotism than a love story, or even a comedy; it's not always clear what is supposed to be funny versus what is cute (I have no idea, in particular, whether the film wants us to regard Marcus's soul-suckingly bad rapping as "good" or not). But at least the leads feel like living, active people, who have inner lives that are being inconvenienced by the events of the film's narrative, and with as much as is dreary and slack about Always Be My Maybe, every little scrap of vitality that creeps in around the edges is greatly welcome.