The most interesting part of “Always Be My Maybe” was watching it with other people.
I don’t mean this literally. I watched the movie when no one else was around, so I could most effectively monopolize the part of my apartment that has the best WiFi. I lounged on my back with my head propped up against the arm of a couch, letting the computer heat up on my stomach.
Instead, the companions I’m talking about are complete strangers on Twitter who were firing off their reactions to the movie, a new romantic comedy starring Ali Wong and Randall Park. My eyes flitted between the movie and the reel of commentary it inspired, because the two elements seemed not just symbiotic but equally important. As I watched Sasha Tran and Marcus Kim, Wong and Park’s characters, fall in love, I tried to aggregate a critical consensus in my head. Would the Pocky and dim sum and plastic-covered couch somehow salvage the movie’s plot? Was this work important in some self-evident way?
It’s not uncommon for new movies to incite feverish online chatter, but “Always Be My Maybe” seems to have been meticulously engineered to do so. It’s a Netflix original, so the most eager viewers were able to watch it immediately upon release. It features an outrageous appearance from the eminently meme-able Keanu Reeves, whose presence in the movie is treated as a punchline in itself. Most notably, it’s a romantic comedy with two Asian American leads, and has been readily hailed as a triumph for minority representation in mainstream media. Wong and Park, who wrote the script in addition to acting in the film, have been explicit about their intention to tell a distinctly Asian American love story. Predictably, much of the discussion about the movie — in published articles, slapdash Twitter reviews, my own conversations with friends — has hinged on that vague promise of representation.
The promise of “representation” puts the viewers who are ostensibly being “represented” in a unique position. To some degree, the experience of watching becomes a personal game of “I Spy”: There’s the snack my mom used to buy me; there’s the same plastic covering that my grandmother has on her furniture. Put another way, much of the conversation about “Always Be My Maybe” has been oriented by the tendency to look for oneself in it. Tweeting in anticipation of the movie’s release, author Celeste Ng recalled her emotional response to “Crazy Rich Asians”: “I cried so much my husband got concerned. My best explanation was that you never got to see Asian people just doing normal things like dancing at a wedding, in a movie.” In a review of “Always Be My Maybe,” Jiayang Fan of the New Yorker wrote that seeing “mundane, culturally specific details exposed on the big screen” felt “quietly radical.” I personally felt heartened watching an Asian American woman flourish as a lead in a genre that has long been headlined by white actresses: Playing celebrity chef Sasha, Wong sports impeccably tailored eveningwear and smooches no fewer than three dreamy love interests.
But every movie should be bigger than the faces that populate it and the customs practiced within it.
Representational victories aside, “Always Be My Maybe” isn’t an especially exciting film. The jokes and gags about fancy restaurants read like a curmudgeonly stand-up set from a decade ago. The movie sets up a number of surprising, challenging questions about family, place and upward mobility, but hardly gives them room to unfold. The film’s argument about what makes “authentic” Asian food is overdetermined, narrow. For me, the promised sensation of seeing Asian Americans lead a mainstream romantic comedy was akin to the feeling of drinking legally for the first time: This is nice. Is this it? Okay, what’s next?
It became a worthwhile watch, in other words, when I started interacting with it like I would any other movie: an object to be put into context with Wong’s other work, an object deserving of deeper critique.
That’s what led me to rewatch “Baby Cobra,” the Netflix comedy special that introduced me to Wong two years ago. For a full hour, a several-months-pregnant Wong riffs about marriage, poop and money. It’s vulgar and, in many moments, cringe-inducing. The character Wong plays in “Baby Cobra” is the nasty mirror image of the palatable executive that appears in “Always Be My Maybe.” While Sasha embodies the slick sensibility of “Lean In” leadership, the version of Wong that appears in “Baby Cobra” proclaims that “feminism is the worst thing that happened to women.”
“We had it so good,” Wong whines, wishing that women had continued to “play dumb” in order to “stay home all day and eat snacks and watch ‘Ellen.’” She continues, “All these women had to show off and be like, ‘We can do it! We can do anything!’ B----, shut up! Don’t tell them the secret.”
Several other aspects of “Always Be My Maybe” have snappy antecedents in Wong’s solo stand-up. While the romantic comedy halfheartedly addresses gentrification, the “Baby Cobra” star skewers hipster neighborhoods as “Yoko Ono factories” filled with young Asian women and the white boyfriends who teach them about “voting, recycling and disturbing documentaries.” While the central drama of “Always Be My Maybe” lies in socioeconomic friction between two people in love, Wong jokes extensively in “Baby Cobra” about finding a man with a degree from Harvard Business School and “trapping” him in marriage.
“Always Be My Maybe” takes a clear stance on what constitutes “authenticity,” but the solo comedian welcomes the ambiguity that lies at the heart of so many Asian American experiences. Wong admits that she sometimes feels like she and her husband are “white people doing an impression of Asian people.”
The two works have clear thematic commonalities — women’s ambition, the role of Asian Americans in gentrifying cities, the notion of “authenticity” — but “Baby Cobra” feels fresh and incisive while “Always Be My Maybe” falls flat. That disparity comes down to differences in form: “Always Be My Maybe” builds a vibrant Asian American milieu — one that feels special and familiar to so many of us — and shovels it into the formulaic, restrictive model of a romantic comedy. The promising side plots — Marcus’s widower father living in gentrifying San Francisco, Sasha’s best friend having a child with her same-sex partner — are predictably glossed over in service of the central romance; the ambiguities that ought to remain frayed are grafted onto a happy ending for Sasha and Marcus.
What gets lost in the laser-focused conversation about representation is attention to the mechanics of storytelling. Wong is clearly a talented writer and comedian who will make movies better than “Always Be My Maybe.” The vague political urgency of minority representation is an imperfect approach for thinking about movies; it clouds them in moral imperative and shallow conceptions of race and power. When I was feeling underwhelmed by the film, my immediate questions were pessimistic. Is this it? Is this the only story about “normal” Asian American we’ll see in the mainstream?
I was disappointed, but not for long: I feel reassured that there is really no “normal” Asian American experience to represent. And what “Always Be My Maybe” helped me see is that even if there were such a thing, the usual Hollywood formulas wouldn’t do it justice.