Far rarer than they used to be twenty-plus years ago, easy and breezy flicks like Always Be My Maybe from Netflix remind us the traditional romantic comedy is alive and well. Best of all, the nostalgia present in today’s artists from growing up during that 1990s heydays of the likes of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers are now making their own movies through their own lens. Smash hit stand-up comedienne Ali Wong and the ever-affable Randall Park of Fresh Off the Boat fame are clearly two of those people. Affectionately blending their own societal zest from their place in America’s Melting Pot, Wong and Park bring new voices as a genius comic pairing. Much of the method of Always Be My Maybe may be routine, but the resulting charm is unfailingly welcome.
Ali’s Sasha Tran and Randall’s Marcus Kim grew up as next-door neighbors in San Francisco and learned from each other’s kindly families, especially the home cooking of Marcus’s mother. The two grew in years and youthful cuteness to be an inseparable pair of kids embracing American culture with their immigrant roots. When they’re finally teens, a flare of comforting passion set to D’Angelo’s stellar 2000 ballad “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” leads the two to lose their virginity, only to have that jarring event sour their friendship. Over the next decade and change, the two drift apart.
Sasha becomes an extremely successful celebrity chef in L.A. engaged to the older and decadent Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim of Hawaii Five-0 and Lost). Marcus never leaves the low ambitions of home, joining his father’s HVAC business, relaxing with pot and a daft dreadlocked girlfriend (TV actress Vivian Bang), and still burning a starving artist candle with the same garage-ish band he fronted since high school with two friends (Karan Soni of Deadpool and comic/voice actress Charlyne Yi). When Sasha temporarily returns to San Francisco to oversee a restaurant opening, her assistant and long-time bestie Veronica (podcast extraordinaire Michelle Buteau) plays minor matchmaker by bringing over Marcus and his father for needed work on Sasha’s rental home.
Running into each other again, they share an initial disparaging tale-of-the-tape where Sasha looks down on Marcus’s lack of direction while he doesn’t care for the uppity person she’s become. However, the two share enough old bonds and connective affinity to rekindle their friendship and enjoy each other’s company while still pushing each other’s embedded flaws and fears. First loves, even unrequited ones, have permanent places in hearts. Like a good rom-com, sparks and hijinks ensue from there.
The themes of self-improvement and the comedic hurdles of recognizing true love that follow are clear and familiar for the genre. However, there is showmanship to Ali Wong and Randall Park, between her furrowed frazzle and his lean levity. The catchy chemistry of the movie comes from the whip-smart writing and performances of the two leads (backed by Grimm writer and story editor Michael Golamco), who both serve as two of the producers of this film. As a long-time scribe on Fresh Off the Boat, Wong has yoked Park’s emerging Everyman strengths for a long time. He is pure charisma with every wide smile. This time, it was Park’s turn to lift up Wong. Randall is the counterweight and heart for Ali broadening her range in her largest and richest role to date. She commands presence quite nicely with poise and panache.
With these two, the romance is automatic, but they are at their best when the sly crassness and crazy bubbles forth. No element in Always Be My Maybe brings that out more than a dynamite extended cameo from Keanu F’n Reeves playing an extremely existential version of his likely self. Showing enormously more personality in 15 or so minutes here than his last 17 roles combined, the John Wick superstar slays the screen with a body count of zero as a grandly theatrical douche and “stealth a — hole.”
Keanu’s hilarious freak flag-flying impact in Always Be My Maybe is one of the best movie cameos in history and will be the highlight of many viewers. It also shows a mild level of missed additional opportunity from Park, Wong, and director Nahnatchka Khan, the show creator of Don’t Trust the B — — in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat. The movie zings best when it veers a little wild like that. More of the unchained and unhinged could have spiked the still-appreciated and customary PG-13 tameness. Release the full R-rated Ali Wong and let the profanity light more fires. That is, admittedly, a rare and quite opposite problem in the romantic comedy genre when the quirks are normally too much.