Let’s hear it for Ali Wong, the Vietnamese-Chinese-American stand-up comic, and Randall Park, born to Korean immigrant parents, for bringing their own hilarious and heartfelt perspective to Always Be My Maybe. It’s an irresistible romantic romp that turns the familiar into something sweet, sassy and laugh-out-loud funny. And, in its own way, quietly revolutionary. The film centers on a relationship between two Asians, neither directly looking outside their culture to fulfill their fantasies. Sure, Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians also did that with much success. But otherwise the Asian-Asian romance is exceedingly rare in a Hollywood that places its bets on a great white hope. The team behind Always Be My Maybe is way smarter than that. Both veterans of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat — she as a wordsmith, he as an actor — Wong and Park make a dream team as co-writers (along with Michael Golamco) and co-stars under the bracing direction of Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan.
Wong plays celebrity chef Sasha Tran, and Park is Marcus Kim, a dreamer stuck on the fringes of San Francisco in a rap band (Hello Peril) that’s going nowhere. Sasha and Marcus haven’t spoken since high school when they clumsily lost their virginity in the cramped backseat of his Corolla. Now that Sasha has returned to the Bay area to open a new restaurant, can the spark reignite, especially with the two barely holding back on their mutual resentment?
Unfortunately, the plot complications are standard issue. Sasha has broken off her engagement to cheating restaurateur Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim) and Marcus’ relationship with dreadlocked girlfriend Jenny (a high-spirited Vivian Bang) feels more homey than hot. Sasha has a pregnant bestie and business partner in Veronica (a wonderfully droll Michelle Buteau) to ease the flow of banter. And Marcus, of course, has his band, which represents a career dead end without for a minute minimizing the fact that Marcus has talent, which Sasha would like him to do something with, for God’s sake.
As director, Khan has a skilled way of letting the past seep into the present as Sasha reconnects not just with Marcus but with his father, Harry (James Saito), who was once such an integral part of her upbringing. These moments deepen the film with resonant feeling without skimping on the ha-ha. There are good jokes about Marcus and rap and how Sasha runs cooking up the fame ladder. One scene, set in a wildly pretentious restaurant, skewers the industry of food with hilarious results.
And then there’s Keanu Reeves, who enters the film as a glamorous impediment to the course of true love. Netflix insists critics shouldn’t reveal who Reeves plays, but trust me, the John Wick star is dynamite in a role much closer to home. His self-mocking wit is simply delicious. Still, the movie holds its center when it stays whisper-close to its bruised heart. The question of whether friends can be lovers is a Hollywood staple (see When Harry Met Sally…) that only works when we form a rooting interest in the characters. That we do that here is a tribute to how well Wong and Park play it naughty and nice. Wong is a comic tornado who never sacrifices truth for a laugh, and Park possesses acting instincts that keep it touchingly real. No maybes about it, they’re too good to miss.