The romantic comedy isn’t dead, in spite of what cynical cranks proclaim each time a new one comes out. The past year or so alone has gifted us Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Set It Up and Love, Simon, to name just a few. To their illustrious number, Always Be My Maybe (the title is a play on the Mariah Carey song “Always Be My Baby,” which naturally accompanies the end credits) can easily be added. The brainchild of comedian Ali Wong, the film is sharp, fresh, funny and sweetly self-assured. This is the kind of movie that feels both warmly familiar and tantalizingly new, paying loving homage to rom-com tropes while subverting them in a modern way.
It’s about time these two comedy juggernauts fronted a movie, and they’re more than up for the challenge. Wong is sweetly sour, twisting her face into Plasticine-like expressions of disgust or disbelief depending on the moment. When she launches a tirade of abuse at an ex-boyfriend over the phone, only for the camera to pull back and reveal an entire child’s birthday party has overheard her, the second-hand embarrassment is keenly felt via the actress’s uncomfortable shuffling. Meanwhile Park, long undervalued as a performer (he plays the father in TV’s Fresh off the Boat), slips effortlessly into Marcus’s arrested development. He’s so comfortable at being uncomfortable onscreen, it’s easy to forget how much effort is required.
Similarly to Long Shot, Park’s schlubby character isn’t a man-child in need of a mother figure. Rather, he has to rise to the occasion to be worthy of the demanding Sasha. A strong, confident woman, fully committed to her career, Sasha is never shamed for her ambition or, worse, forced to change her life in order to accommodate some loser she’ll have to look after for the rest of it. A compromise is necessary, but more effort is required of Marcus than Sasha because she has her life together and he doesn’t. Sadly, this is still a revolutionary viewpoint, particularly in romantic comedy terms (Long Shot was mistakenly read as sexist in certain quarters).
The best rom-coms are non-judgemental. Consider Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s titular character’s tearful speech about how hard she tried to save a relationship her careless partner accused her of throwing away. Always Be My Maybe loves Sasha and Marcus equally, it wants them to be together and, crucially, it wants the audience to root for them, too. In fully getting behind their pairing, the movie subverts the usual formula — the makeover trope is brilliantly dismantled during an ill-advised trip to Tom Ford, the big make it or break it speech is delivered by Marcus, and not Sasha, so that, for once, it’s the guy standing in front of the girl asking her to love him, not the other way around.
Still, in saying all of that, there’s plenty of Nancy Meyers-esque wish fulfillment to enjoy here, from beautiful costumes and awe-inspiring properties to all the scrumptious Asian food Sasha cooks (similar to Crazy Rich Asians, which simply must be watched with a big plate of dumplings). Always Be My Maybe is sweet but not saccharine, edgy enough not to be corny when it drifts towards warm and fuzzy. The script, credited to Wong, Par, and Michael Golamco, is sharply written, topical and loaded with hilarious pop culture references (“I once saw Glenn Close order a pineapple sandwich”), but it’s never cynical or smug. This is a modern love story, but it’s still a love story.
There are obstacles for Sasha and Marcus to overcome and one of those obstacles, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, comes in the form of one Keanu Reeves. Playing a heightened version of himself, the beloved John Wick star and King of a thousand memes (“CYBERPUNK!”) is delightful. Even how he shifts across the floor on his butt is hilarious. Wong and director Nahnatchka Khan always had Reeves in mind for the role, because, as Wong told Vulture, he’s the only Asian American actor who could possibly be more intimidating to Marcus than Daniel Dae Kim (who plays Sasha’s fiancé, and the recipient of her expletive-laden rant). The duo also considered Reeves’ John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum co-star, Mark Dacascos, for the role if the great man couldn’t do it, which is strangely meta in retrospect.
Aside from that glorious cameo, the peripheral characters are strong across the board, from Sasha’s hilariously cheap parents to Marcus’s sweet but inappropriate father, along with their heavily pregnant high school BFF, Marcus’s dread-sporting hipster girlfriend and the always welcome Casey Wilson, who shows up as an interior decorator terrified of getting Sasha’s new restaurant all wrong. Similar to the lovely Lady Bird, Always Be My Maybe feels familiar but not necessarily autobiographical, much to its credit. The distance allows Wong and Park to play their characters without vanity, so the story is stronger and more nuanced. It’s both specific and universal enough to get behind entirely — like diving into a big bowl of noodles face-first and finding all kinds of hidden delights hiding within the curls.
Crucially, Marcus’ band isn’t a punch-line. They’re good, decent enough to be big, but he’s holding them back due to his debilitating fear of change. Similar to Seth Rogen’s character in Long Shot, he’s a bit clueless but never cruel or consciously self-serving. And, similar to that movie, Marcus needs a push to change for the better rather than a babysitter to cater to his every dumb whim. As with that story of a strong woman and the man comfortable enough to play second fiddle to her (at least in public), Always Be My Maybe asks that Marcus isn’t blinded by Sasha’s shine to the point he neglects his own. There’s space for both once they are willing to make the effort.
The rom-com isn’t dead. It was simply evolving into something more interesting, more modern and more accepting. Imagine a world in which Kathleen Kelly didn’t have to give up her bookshop or Anna Scott didn’t have to… live in one; a world in which a man isn’t embarrassed to hold his lady’s purse on the red carpet because support goes both ways — that’s the vision of the rom-com in 2019 and it’s about damn time. Always Be My Maybe solidifies that things are changing for the better, but its politics are threaded in between light, fluffy layers of sweetness, hilarity and genuine affection for the couple at its heart. It’s both a successful romantic comedy and a strong statement for evolving gender roles, something its leads couldn’t have conceived of all those years ago in the back of a smelly Toyota Corolla.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.