I am generally not a fan of romantic comedies. Most of what we're offered under this banner is neither romantic nor funny. But much worse than that is what is, for me, the primary problem with rom-coms: They are all about presenting us with a couple that we are intended to see as inevitably meant to be together, and yet they must be kept apart for 90 minutes (in order for there to be a movie at all) while also retaining our sympathy. In too many movies, this narrative dare is met – poorly – by erecting artificial barriers between the couple that are too preposterous to tolerate, and/or by having them behave in such outrageously stupid, cruel, or ridiculous ways that they lose us.
None of this is ever necessary! We are all so neurotic, especially when it comes to love and sex, that even the best of us become our own worst enemies when confronted with someone who 1) makes our bits tingle, 2) challenges us to be vulnerable and 3) forces us to restrain ourselves from punching them in their goddamn smug fucking gorgeous faces. The mystery and the infuriation and the terror of attraction is more than sufficient to fuel the plot of a movie without having to drag in anything else. Though that does take a bit of self-awareness and a willingness to be self-deprecating on the part of the filmmakers. Which is a lot more than we can usually hope for.
With this all in mind, I approached Netflix's Always Be My Maybe with great trepidation, because I am absolutely desperate for movies to move away from the dominance of white faces and wanted to be able to get fully behind a rom-com that features Asian-American leads. (The first person who says "But Crazy Rich Asians!" gets a face full of chili oil. This a very different kind of movie: that one was Golden Age Hollywood luxury porn; this is way more down to earth.)
Joy of joys, Always is a joy. This is a smart, modern romantic comedy that's actually both amusing and realistically romantic, because the hangups keeping the central will-they/won't-they couple apart are anxieties that spring from deep within the characters, so it's crap we can all identify with and moan about and go, yeah, I'd probably do exactly the same thing and hate myself for it but maybe would end up with a relationship anyway fingers crossed?
Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) is a hugely successful Los Angeles celebrity chef with a hot – in all senses of the word – fiancé in Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim), entrepreneur and investor in her foodie projects, but maybe that relationship isn't going so well? When she returns to her hometown of San Francisco to open a new restaurant, she reconnects with her childhood next-door-neighbor and best friend, Marcus Kim (Randall Park), who never left home: He's a partner in his dad's (James Saito) HVAC business and sidelines as a musician in a local band. Sasha and Marcus had a bit of a falling out as teens but now they are finding that maybe the spark of connection is still there. But there are also matters of money and ambition keeping these two potential lovebirds apart: He is happy to be a struggling musician, she wants to conquer the world with her new-Asian cuisine.
So! Always Be My Maybe is flipping a lot of genre scripts. The female lead is more financially successful than the guy, and if he is going to be with her, he is going to be the one to sacrifice his life and his preconceptions of where he was going to take himself. (This is rare for men onscreen.) Way more importantly, there is a marked Asian-Americanness to the story and the settings, but the overriding ethos is that these Asian-Americans are primarily American. Their experiences and their subcultures and their roots are no less legitimately American than, say, an Irish-American one or a German-American one. This has not been something that a silly American movie has said before, as far as I am aware.
Look: I got this far into a review praising this movie without even mentioning the absolute cinematic theft that is Keanu Reeves' extended cameo, the nature of which I would not dare spoil in case you haven't already heard about it. (Reeves: of partial Hawaiian-Chinese heritage.) In a world in which those of us who care about diverse representation didn't have to be so concerned about that, Reeves' appearance here would be the headline. That he's not? Huge progress.