SHORTCOMINGS: CATCHER IN THE RYE meets Relationship Comedy

A still from Shortcomings by Randall Park, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Even though it has been over seventy years since J.D. Salinger’s novel was first published, The Catcher in the Rye continues to influence multiple types of entertainment media today. In the case of Shortcomings, the iconic book has had a noticeable impact on both the comic book of the same name and its film adaptation. Angst, apathy, arrested development, self-loathing, and cynicism are all traits that Shortcomings protagonist Ben Tanaka has in common with Catcher‘s Holden Caufield.

Though Ben is a full-grown adult, he has reached a point where he remains stuck in a rut and gripes about it. His life resembles driving around a cul de sac or a roundabout, but he has yet to head to the exit route. When enrolled in college, Ben had aspirations of becoming a filmmaker. As an ardent cinephile and a snobby one, Ben had dreams of following in the footsteps of his heroic auteurs.

After a disastrous attempt at a first movie, Ben has dropped out of school and manages a charming but old and struggling movie theater. Meanwhile, his more passionate and driven girlfriend Miko has grown tired of Ben’s aimlessness and his inane gift for making others feel bad about themselves. Though far from perfect, Ben has no filter when sharing his opinions about people, art, movies, and even his culture. The time has come when Ben should stop criticizing others and take a long, hard look at the person he has become.

My synopsis sounds so dour and depressing, but Shortcomings is funny. At the beginning of the movie, the Ben Tanaka character comes across as hilarious with his sharp wit, smart-ass attitude, and what appears to be fearlessness in calling people out on their flaws. That, and his ineptitude in romantic relationships, often adds to the laughs in this movie.

Written by Adrian Tomine (based on his comic book of the same name), Shortcomings is the directorial debut feature of comedic actor Randall Park. However, I have yet to read the comic and have only done some minimal research on the material for this review. This adaption captures the tone and spirit of the source. The thematic content reminds me of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, another comic and film adaptation obviously inspired by The Catcher in the Rye. In the case of Park’s film, the movie’s attitude isn’t quite as caustic, but it does come close.

Though very derivative of other angsty, alienation stories, the strength of Shortcomings is in the writing. Tomine knows his baby well and does a great job of developing the screenplay from his book. As a director, Randall Park proves himself reasonably competent in pulling everything together. Though there is nothing flashy or exciting about the film’s presentation, Park focuses on the characters and their various experiences.

The movie has much going on in its modest 92-minute runtime. Park and Tomine tackle not only the personal troubles of Ben Tanaka but also address cultural and racial problems faced by the Asian-American community and the various other targets of this satire. The reach is sometimes broad, with some characters, beats, and subplots needing to be more cooked. However, when it comes to the nature of Ben, the filmmakers and actor Justin H. Min nail it.

Min is perfectly cast here, and he solidly captures the various facets of the character. He starts as a likable and funny rebellious type, but one who appropriately wears out his welcome just before the film’s final act. The movie also features a fun and heartfelt performance by Sherry Cola, who portrays Ben’s best friend, Alice, a young lady with similar woes and a no-nonsense attitude to match. The film also has admirable turns by actors Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, and Timothy Simons.

Though I mostly enjoyed this movie, some broad strokes needed more depth and definition. Still, I am a sucker for a fun and often biting comedy that draws inspiration from The Catcher in the Rye. Shortcomings opens in select theaters on August 4, 2023, but it is a movie that doesn’t demand its interested parties to view it in a theater. This movie would make for an acceptable date night at home or a fun night with friends.

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