CULTURE & ARTS

Will 'Always Be My Maybe' Always Be Our Baby?

The much-anticipated new Randall Park-Ali Wong film transports us to the heyday of the American rom-com — with a few refreshing changes.

Do you remember where you were when you first saw the trailer for Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe”? We sure do (at our desks). The preview was catnip for a classic romantic comedy fan: covetable clothes, upscale restaurant kitchens, sexual tension, Ali Wong mugging madly as she describes a night of “freaky-ass sex” to a horrified Randall Park, Keanu Reeves, the sweet sounds of Mariah Carey. It seemed unjust to have to wait until May 31 to put that into our eyeballs.

But trailers are trailers. The question, of course, is whether the movie lives up to that glorious promise.

Written by co-stars Ali Wong and Randall Park along with Michael Golamco, and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, “Always Be My Maybe” tells the story of Sasha (Wong) and Marcus (Park), childhood best friends who haven’t spoken in 16 years after a falling-out. She’s moved to Los Angeles and become a celebrity chef with a chiseled manager-slash-fiancé, while he lives at home in San Francisco with his dad, works at his dad’s heat and air company, smokes pot, and moonlights as the frontman of a local band. Sasha’s return to San Francisco to open a new restaurant coincides with a relationship rumspringa initiated by her less-than-devoted betrothed, which situates her perfectly to reconnect with Marcus when they bump into each other. But with so much history, and such a wide gulf between their new lives, it remains to be seen if Marcus and Sasha can really find love. (Unless you’ve ever seen a rom-com before, ever, in your life.)

Will “Always Be My Maybe” always be our baby, or could time indeed erase a feeling this strong? HuffPost’s Leigh Blickley and Claire Fallon discuss.

Ali Wong as Sasha Tran.
Ali Wong as Sasha Tran.

Claire: When the trailer for “Always Be My Maybe” dropped, it felt like a special present to me. Not only was it premiering on Netflix on my actual birthday, it’s one of my favorite types of movies ― a glossy, candy-colored romp reminiscent of the ’90s and aughts rom-com blockbusters that shaped my film taste. (I’m basic and you cannot make me feel bad about it.) Plus, it was created by and starred Randall Park and Ali Wong, who I would watch in anything. I didn’t even need to watch the trailer through to the Keanu reveal to know this was what I needed! Leigh, how high were your expectations going into the movie?

Leigh: I’ve always been a fan of Randall Park, and recently discovered my adoration of Ali Wong when I was pregnant with my daughter last year. I watched all of her comedy specials and was hooked on her candidness about pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum life. She was like my doula during those long nine months! So, yes, my expectations for “Always Be My Maybe” were high ― and thankfully, Randall and Ali pulled through. Like you, Claire, rom-coms are my go-to. And this one gave me all the good feelings classics like “The Wedding Planner” or “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” did, except they swapped out Matthew McConaughey for Keanu Reeves and made food the real eye candy.

Claire: Mmm, the food.

Leigh: Claire, what did you think of the film’s premise?

Claire: I love a good friends-to-enemies-to-lovers premise, and that’s what “ABMM” gives us. To summarize, Marcus (Park) and Sasha (Wong) were best friends from childhood. She spends a lot of time at his home, learning to cook from his creatively gifted mother, since her parents work long hours running a store. At the end of high school, his mother dies in an accident; in the midst of grieving, Marcus and Sasha finally hook up. The timing sucks ― both immature, both raw with loss, they end up in a nasty argument. They don’t speak for 16 years, during which Sasha becomes a celebrity chef in LA and Marcus joins his dad’s heat and air business and nurtures a very local career as the frontman of rap group Hello Peril. Then Sasha comes back to San Francisco to open a new restaurant and runs into Marcus. Soon, the awkwardness and residual resentment is overpowered by their natural attraction, and they realize they’re interested in more than friendship ― even though their lifestyles and ambitions seem to be very different. Complications ensue.

If I had one complaint, it would be that there were too many plot beats for a 100-minute movie. A lot rides on Wong’s and Park’s charisma and crackling chemistry to make up for rushed establishing scenes, as we snap back and forth from friendship to love to conflict multiple times. Did you ever get the sense that the plot was a bit overstuffed, or was that just me?

Leigh: There was definitely a lot going on. We had parents. We had hippie girlfriends. We had restaurants. We had interior designers. We had pregnant best friends. It was all a little much to follow, for sure, especially in a rom-com setup.

The establishing drama wraps up quickly: Sasha starts out the movie engaged to her asshole manager, Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim), but soon ends up, as she calls it, on her own six-month “Bachelorette” dating spree after he proposes they spend some time apart. (As it turns out, he just wanted to date Padma Lakshmi.) Then, Sasha ― who, don’t forget, is opening a new restaurant ― finds herself single in San Fran and begins to date around, which includes a tryst with Keanu Reeves ― playing Keanu Reeves ― whom she bumps into while catering a wrap party. (We never see their full meet-cute, which, shame.) He comes and goes, as do a lot of things. (Again, what’s going on at the restaurant? Does Sasha even cook?!)

Claire: Sasha is a celebrity chef, Leigh; at that level, the word “chef” is essentially decorative.

Leigh: The narrative is clear ― years after their falling out, feelings are reignited between Sasha and Marcus, who is trying to find his own way while watching her succeed in the spotlight. But, yes, the toss-ins, although fun, are slightly distracting. I thoroughly enjoyed Keanu playing a bizarre, red-wine loving Keanu, though.

Claire: Yes! And I don’t want to gloss over Marcus’ hippie girlfriend. Jenny has dreads, makes pasta with Vienna sausage for a very tolerant Sasha, and claims to be spiritually married to Marcus ― until a more glamorous option comes her way. (No sleep is lost over the abandoned partners.)

The Keanu cameo was a highlight of the film; his emotionally volatile, studiously pretentious caricature of himself anchors a hilarious sequence in which the two couples eat sous vide venison while listening to a recording of the deceased animal, then engage in a surprisingly violent game of Icebreakers. It might seem like his role, admittedly a bit stunty, eats up too much of the precious runtime, if it didn’t do so much to fan the frisson between Sasha and Marcus. 10/10, absolute perfection.

Leigh: As is the dish the flavor of Caesar salad!

Claire: Keanu really sold his enjoyment of that ... plate of salad-flavored pastes.

In my anticipation for this movie, I’ve been inhaling articles about the show ― profiles of Park and Wong, pieces positioning the film in the current movie landscape ― and one repeated point of emphasis has been just how Asian-American it is. All of the characters mentioned above are Asian-American (the only major one who isn’t is Sasha’s childhood friend and current employee Veronica, played by Michelle Buteau).

Leigh: What I loved is that, sure, these main characters are Asian, and their humor perfectly reflects that fact, but their identity isn’t the main point. It’s a love story between two people, who just so happen to be Asian. We need more of that!

We’ve definitely seen a welcome growth in projects featuring Asian leads, be it the box-office success “Crazy Rich Asians” or the teen drama “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” We even have Awkwafina’s upcoming “The Farewell” and Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night” to look forward to. Whereas Asian American actors used to be cast as supporting characters, doors are now opening up for them to front films and, like we’ve seen with Park and Wong, they’re able to write their own stories and tell their own truths, as well.

Claire: Having a whole cast of Asian American actors allows their identity to be fully explored without tokenizing, which I thought was a great strength. Watching it filled me with a nostalgia that I didn’t expect, like stepping unexpectedly into a childhood buddy’s home. It wasn’t my story on-screen, but the story of people I know and love, whose lives are important to me, and whose realities are rarely represented in the media I consume. It’s filled with tiny details, like kids taking off their shoes to run through the house and guests being offered fruit, that infuse it with cultural specificity, and it also moves beyond tropes like the strict immigrant parents ― Marcus’ parents don’t speak with accents, and their relationship is completely without a culture-clash element. Even Marcus’ socially conscious Asian American band, Hello Peril, hit me hard; I’ve never seen something like it in a mainstream movie or show, but I had friends who were really into that kind of music growing up! (Also, he kills it onstage.) Seeing it, it was like, of course. Of course this is the kind of character we should be seeing, and have been missing out on in favor of a million interchangeable white jocks and beauty queens. It’s joyful to see it presented without commentary or an exoticizing gaze, just as white American culture is presented without explanation in so much popular entertainment.

This whole movie is a Park-Wong joint, and their raunchy, goofy humor is the hallmark of the movie, but what did you think of their performances?

Randall Park as Marcus Kim.
Randall Park as Marcus Kim.

Leigh: I was immediately into Park as Marcus, a devoted son, and dare-I-say super impressive rapper, who, like many of us, is still trying to figure out his purpose in life. His comedic timing is impeccable. I laughed out loud on multiple occasions, i.e., Vienna sausage eating, the joke about Korean Prince Eric from “The Little Mermaid” and all those Keanu punch lines. See what I did there? Park is a natural funnyman, and every time he was on-screen, I was charmed. Wong, on the other hand, plays her comedy big ― her expressions only adding to each one-liner. I did enjoy the nods to her momcentric comedy specials, including one of the opening bits between her and Buteau about Kate Middleton’s postpartum body/royal diaper. But, I did feel like I was just watching Ali Wong play Ali Wong?

Claire: It’s funny you say that, because I think I actually preferred Wong’s performance! She has the polished look and quick patter of a leading comedienne, even if that’s just who she naturally is. Park ― who is 45 and at one point plays a 17-year-old ― has more of a dad vibe to me. (This might be partly to blame on my love for “Fresh Off the Boat,” the ABC sitcom on which he plays a dad.) I felt his performance was the most confident when he was playing up his awkwardness at reuniting with a newly glam childhood crush, whereas the romantic smoldering felt a little less fully realized. And yet I absolutely fanned myself when they finally left Keanu bleeding and jumped each other.

To return to Wong for a second, though, I thought working in the mom comedy by having Veronica, the loyal sidekick, just casually being pregnant and giving birth over the course of the film was inspired. Why are characters never just randomly pregnant in movies? Sometimes your friends are just pregnant and all they want to talk about is how farty they are!

Leigh: I currently have a handful of mom friends, a few pregnant pals and one who just gave birth this week, so I feel you there. There should always be pregnant women in movies. Burritos-for-two jokes only!

What I craved from the movie, however, were more restaurant goings-on. As I mentioned earlier, food is the eye candy here. And although there were some droolworthy shots, if you introduce me to a fictional celebrity chef, I want more kitchen drama! Did you feel like the fact that Sasha was a chef was sort of background information, even though her whole story sort of rides off her career? (It was overstuffed already though, as you noted.)

Claire: It’s true, Sasha’s career is less about cooking and more about branding. To get a glimpse of her work, we see her on red carpets and business calls. When Marcus mocks her highfalutin cuisine, it’s hard to even tell if he’s justified; I didn’t recall having seen them eating food from her restaurant at all, and certainly not preparing it. This felt like a calculated choice, though. It plays up the distance between her opulent lifestyle and ambitions and his comparatively humble career ― a conflict that eventually causes them trouble.

I did want to note one joke that really didn’t land for me: When Sasha and Marcus reconnect by mocking apparently able-bodied drivers using handicapped tags to get better parking. It felt a bit dated, especially in a movie otherwise so modern and thoughtful, to include an ignorant bit that discounts the validity of invisible disabilities. I have to admit that I cringed.

Were there any other parts that fell flat for you?

Leigh: Totally agree with you on that. There were some jokes that I was like, “blah,” namely the Gubi chair gag. (Maybe that’s why we didn’t see Casey Wilson again?) A few of the parts with Sasha and her parents left me wanting more ― all I learned was that they’re absent and cheap. I think the end ― (spoiler!) where they tell her they paid for their meal at her new restaurant ― would’ve made me more emotional had we gotten to spend a bit more time in the family dynamic.

Claire: That’s true ― I think Wilson’s part (much as I love her) could have been axed and a little more time devoted to more vital pieces of Sasha’s character, particularly her relationship with her parents. Any reference to Marcus’ late mom, meanwhile, left me in a puddle of heart’s blood and salt tears, which (spoiler alert) is where you could find me at the conclusion of this movie. So, Leigh, what’s the final verdict? Yay or nay on “Always Be My Maybe”?

Leigh: Yes, everything involving Marcus’ mom left me misty-eyed. (The end :( ) Also, shoutout to Harry aka Mr. Kim (James Saito), who I adored throughout the entire movie. He got his happy ending too! All in all, I really enjoyed Park, Wong and co-writer Michael Golamco’s script ― it felt fresh but reminiscent of the glory days of the rom-coms. Also, movies on Netflix are always a sure-win, as it’s easy enough to flick something on from the comfort of your own couch rather than spending who knows how much on a ticket, soda and popcorn at the theater. I enjoy sobbing alone anyway, thank you very much. Claire, were you satisfied?

Claire: I was satisfied! It was a bumpy ride at times, but it had the sparkle, energy and texture that separates the date-night movie from the “eh, if there’s nothing else on” clunker. If you enjoy the occasional rom-com in your queue, this is a worthy inclusion. And I can’t wait to see what Park and Wong ― not to mention director Nahnatchka Khan, the mastermind of the tragically short-lived sitcom “Don’t Trust the B― in Apartment 23” ― get up to next.

This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Vienna sausage as Viennese sausage.

 

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