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Non-Review Review: Always Be My Maybe

Perhaps Always Be My Maybe is a more accurate reminder of the romantic comedy.

Much digital ink has been spilled on the state of the romantic comedy as a genre, particularly in the context of the streaming wars. Many critics and observers have lamented the death of the mid-budget movie at the American box office, citing the romantic comedy as one of the genres most obviously affected. However, there were a number of hopeful signs of life in the genre in recent years. Netflix has been consciously investing in these sorts of films, with internet favourites like Set It Up or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. (Tellingly, Netflix became the international home for Isn’t It Romantic?)

The script could use a punch-up.

However, the genre also performed robustly in cinemas with Crazy Rich Asians becoming a breakout success story for Warner Brothers and sparking a lot of excitement and interest around the genre. In fact, even Late Night looks like it might do something similar for the related “woman at work” subgenre; although its box office success seems much less assured, critical response is very positive. As a result, it seems like reports of the death of the romantic comedy and similar works have been greatly exaggerated. There is life in that old genre yet, whether theatrically or streaming.

The arrival of Always Be My Maybe underscores at least one factor in the success of breakout hits like Crazy Rich AsiansSet It Up or Late Night. A lot of the modern attention on the romantic comedy genre is focused on exceptional examples of the genre; films within the genre that are very, very good. In contrast, Always Be My Maybe feels like something of a grim corrective. It is perhaps more representative of the romantic comedy genre as it tended to be, rather than evoking the popular memory of it. This is to say that Always Be My Maybe is occasionally charming, largely derivative, and generally quite bland.

I left my heart in San Francisco.

The script on Always Be My Maybe is credited to Michael Golamco and leads Randall Park and Ali Wong. While the film avoids some of the more obvious signifiers of stock Netflix romantic comedies – lacking a scene in which one or more characters actually watch Netflix in order to showcase the wide range of similar movies on offer as a sort of in-universe recommendation – it does feel like it was designed almost by algorithm. It isn’t simply that Always Be My Maybe runs through all the familiar romantic comedy signifiers. It is that it feels like it was grown in a lab with reference to other successful examples of the genre.

This is most obvious in the weird nineties nostalgia which permeates the film. Always Be My Maybe features Randall Park and Ali Wong as Marcus Kim and Sasha Tran, who grew up as neighbours in San Francisco. Park is forty-five years old, and was born in 1974. His childhood would logically fall within the early-to-mid-eighties; a time of Reagan and Terminator and Ghostbusters. However, the movie pushes his character’s birthday to 1981, perhaps so that he might seem a less awkward romatic suitor for the eight-years-younger Wong, but also so that his teenage years can unfold during the nineties.

Maybe, baby.

Inevitably, the film sets an extended introductory sequence in the period, including shout-outs to Wayne’s World and grunge culture. The title of the film is a shout out to Mariah Carey’s 1995 single Always Be My Baby. At the heart of the film nestles a cameo from a beloved nineties icon; sure, that actor has a number of major twenty-first century hits, including one from which he took a break to film his extended cameo, but a large part of that performer’s appeal lies in the formative impact that he would have had on a generation that came of age in the nineties. (The film’s closing song heavily alludes to them.)

More than that, the emotional crux of Always Be My Maybe hinges on one fateful night in 1999. As a result, Always Be My Maybe is framed as a movie that is explicitly about millennial anxieties. Marcus has lost his mother and is considering whether to go to college. Sasha takes a car ride with him. In the moment, the pair hook up and lose their virginity to one another. It is a moment that could have a profound impact on both of their lives, if they allow it. Unfortunately, an awkward argument in a late-night Burger King pulls the two apart.

“Our celebrity cameo is a real Net-flex.”

There is a sense that both characters are still stuck in that moment. It is more obvious with Marcus, who still lives at home with his father in a state of arrest development, dancing in front of a mirror and smoking recreational drugs. However, this is also the case with Sasha, who still has to reconcile with her parents and has allowed herself to be drafted into a loveless relationship that works more like a cynical business partnership because it is easier than navigating her complicated web of feelings. Even Marcus’ diabetic father is still stuck in that moment, desperately shipping the couple who haven’t seen each other in years.

Always Be My Maybe feels very calculated in its construction, built around elements that should individually appeal to audiences without any sense of how they fit together. An extended stretch in the middle of the film is given over to a ridiculously elaborate celebrity cameo, from an actor who is having what might be described as a “moment.” That actor was so busy that shooting his scenes in Always Be My Maybe happened between two different location shoots for a much larger zeitgeist-capturing blockbuster. (The closing song likens the actor to “the Justice League” or “the Avengers”, to give a sense of cultural scale.)

This stretch is impressive, and works very well on its own terms. It is a good joke in the context of the film, using the celebrity appearance in a very canny self-aware manner while also incorporating it shrewdly into the structure of the romantic comedy. Indeed, the joke hinges on the use of this mega-star to fill two separate roles within the romantic comedy framework, and the actor in question is willing to commit to both of those. However, it also jars with the film around it, feeling like an element that exists because it will make the movie notable, rather than as an organic extension of the film itself.

There are other smaller elements that feel similarly cynically calculated. Early in the film, it is revealed that Marcus is in a band. Narratively, this seems to suggest the character’s arrested development. However, it also seems designed to provide the film with potentially viral content. In particular, Park performs the song that plays over the closing credits both in- and out-of-character, referencing both the song’s position and his character’s lived experiences. There are cases where this can work well, such as the holiday album from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but it feels too heavy-handed in Always Be My Maybe.

A couple of issues.

These elements all seem like they are designed primarily to give Always Be My Maybe some hooks into the savvy internet-era audience rather than flowing naturally from the story that Golamco, Park and Wong are trying to tell. The film focuses all of its attention on these largely superfluous elements, leaving the heart of the story relatively underdeveloped. Always Be My Baby hits all of the marks of the romantic comedy; the estranged friends who belong together, the romantic partners who get in the way, the getting-together-only-to-break-up, the third act separation-and-reunion. However, it all feels pro forma.

Park and Wong are performers with natural charisma, even if Park is a slightly stronger actor than Wong. However, Always Be My Maybe traps them in crudely drawn archetypes rather than allowing them to develop fully-formed characters. There is a moment late in Always Be My Maybe when – paying off an earlier joke – Marcus struts into a Tom Ford store and demands that he be properly dressed for his reunion with Sasha. However, when he sees the price tag, Marcus immediately retreats to a discount mall to buy the kind of suit that is useful for “low level job interviews” or “court appearances.”

Driving curiousity.

That joke feels almost like a commentary on Always Be My Maybe, which has all the basic ingredients and structure of a basic romantic comedy, but refuses to elevate its game in the way that other contemporary examples of the form like The Big Sick have done. There is a strange sense that Always Be My Maybe believes that it is enough to show up and hit its marks, to do the bare minimum expected of a film like this. This is evident even during the opening montage, set to a poor cover version of Young Americans. This is a film with Netflix money; go Bowie or bust, but don’t settle on a lifeless imitation.

This is obvious in the way that Always Be My Maybe shamelessly indulges in the tropes and conventions of the romantic comedy with only fleeting self-awareness. An extended early sequence casts forty-five-year-old Randall Park as a nineteen-year-old character by dressing him in a wig and baggy clothes. In a more self-aware film this would play like the early scenes from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, revelling in the absurdity of a middle-aged man playing a teenager. Instead, Always Be My Maybe just asks the audience to accept it as a standard trope in films like this, without unpacking or amending it.

Table these concerns for later.

To a certain extent, Always Be My Maybe suffers slightly from arriving in the middle of a romantic comedy revival. Had the film been released a few years earlier, it might have seemed a welcome and refreshing revival. (That said, one imagines that the film would look a lot different.) However, as it stands, Always Be My Maybe serves another purpose. It demonstrates the intense level of skill and craft present in recent films attempting to revive the genre. Always Be My Maybe demonstrates that just being a romantic comedy is not enough, that simply applying the formula isn’t enough.

Park and Wong are both charismatic performers, but Always Be My Maybe lacks the stellar chemistry that made Set It Up pop off the screen. Always Be My Maybe hits on all of the expected beats of a romantic comedy, but it never elevates them with the little attention to detail and understanding that made Crazy Rich Asians such a delight. Always Be My Maybe understands the need for the genre to diversify, but doesn’t understand how best to use that to revitalise familiar formulas like Late Night. Always Be My Maybe tries to sell its big emotional moments, but none land as well as any in The Big Sick.

The result is something that looks and feels like a factory setting romantic comedy. Within a genre that has demonstrated it is capable of so much moreover the past few years, that just isn’t enough.

 

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