Biweekly Binge: Always Be My Maybe — The rich and not-so-rich Crazy Asians
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Always Be My Maybe
After watching Nahnatchka Khan's feature debut Always Be My Maybe, a friend messaged asking, "Aren't there romcoms for twenty-somethings anymore?" That got me thinking. Did we lose this genre as an effect of possibly the worst 10-year period for romcoms that began around 2007 and ended around 2015? I am doing this from memory, but that period wasn't the greatest for romantic comedies and there is ample evidence to argue that it's got to do with how that period wasn't great to the women in these comedies. Now we have a romcom revival, a large part of it led by Netflix where Always Be My Maybe dropped on May 31, with their universes built around a high school or those in a burrow of midlife crisis — cynicism and misanthropy sprinkled just enough in the good ones or taken to the extreme in the worst ones. An example of the former is probably the recent Long Shot starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, one of the best in the genre in recent times, and for the latter, there was Destination Wedding with Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder.
Always Be My Maybe's beats aren't new to those who have been following Khan's earlier creation, Fresh Off the Boat, about an Asian family navigating 90s America as first-generation immigrants. The new film has Randall Park from Fresh Off the Boat with comedian Ali Wong, teaming up as childhood friends who lose touch and rediscover each other in the age of Trump and hyper-awareness but with a thick class divide separating them. Sasha (Ali Wong) is a celebrity chef owning multiple high-end restaurants and Marcus (Randall Park) is a man in limbo, living with his dad and helping him in his handyman work. Interestingly, the celebrity chef part is something Always Be My Maybe shares with Fresh Off the Boat, which was inspired by Chef Eddie Huang's memoir about his Asian-American family.
In a recent Buzzfeed profile, Anne Helen Petersen wrote about Kate Hudson's journey from the next-breakout-romcom-star to Hollywood oblivion, now revived by an athleisure-brand-owning and influencing Instagram persona. Hudson is not one-off. There is the wellness and lifestyle brand of Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba's products for mothers and Drew Barrymore's makeup products. Petersen writes about the turn towards hollowness for romantic comedies, thanks to the treatment of women characters in them over the last decade, rendering them dispensable and therefore their stars turning to other avenues to cash in on their brand and image.
Of course, the other trait that stars like Hudson and Paltrow share is their whiteness and privilege. The genre is now making a glorious comeback with new writers and diversity pushing its way in. Always Be My Maybe, written by Park, Wong and Michael Golamco, joins that list. At different points it works like a retelling of Notting Hill — a lot unsaid between the two principal characters, one of them a major celebrity and the other, the very definition of ordinary. There is even a scene involving the press, the cameras and one of them baring their heart in front of it all. There is a bit of gender-reversed Say Anything without the boombox, Sasha on ground level and Marcus in the balcony, the former trying to win the latter's heart.
Most of the funny bits in Always Be My Maybe work. Park brings his fine, deadpan form from Fresh Off the Boat here (but without the dad jokes) and Wong looks like she's playing her own self. Thanks to Wong, Always Be My Maybe is edgier than the garden variety romcom with an outrageously funny cameo from Keanu Reeves playing himself. Marcus, Sasha, Keanu, and Marcus's girlfriend, Jenny double date in a restaurant that is straight out of a Heston Blumenthal bizarre world where you hear the sounds of the animal you are consuming. Reeves is at his most relaxed self in a long time while also being a parody of every Hollywood star ever. It works because everything he does here is the straight opposite of the things you hear about the real Keanu Reeves. Always Be My Maybe is a nice addition to Netflix's romcom universe, diversity meeting quality entertainment and meta commentary.