OOur collective thirst for the release of a truly great rom-com has had us looking back and forth, re-watching the classics until we are sick, eagerly awaiting a worthy new addition. These savvy folks at Netflix have taken notice, and as a result, they’ve algorithmically constructed a series of lab-cooked, box-ticking imposters that sit spookily next to the films they’re desperately trying to emulate. Last year’s Summer of Love turned Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Kissing Booth into worldwide hits, with more than 80 million accounts supposedly watch one or more, and prove once again how much we crave a neat-cute encounter.
On the big screen, that same hunger has also led to recent examples of the genre, such as Crazy Rich Asians and Long Shot, receiving over-the-top reviews, reviews seemingly as hungry for romcom slam-dunk as viewers. But the search for a winner keeps rolling, as does the Netflix factory, which kicks off another summer season with Always Be My Maybe, an often funny and often frustrating take on a familiar formula.
Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park) were childhood best friends who broke up after a one-night stand as young adults. As 30-somethings, the pair lead very different lives, with Sasha a successful celebrity chef and Marcus still living at home and playing in the same local band. After an unexpected reunion, they find that the residual gel is melting away quickly and they go back to their old ways. But can they turn a friendship into something more? You can probably guess the answer to that.
Written by Wong, who wrote four seasons of Fresh Off the Boat, and Park, who stars in the series, Always Be My Maybe is a rare romantic comedy with two Asian American leads, and there’s a strong feeling of cultural specificity that informs the scenario. As protagonists, they’re equally strong, but as a romantic couple, there’s a stifling lack of chemistry, at least as anything other than friends. The upshot is that as an audience, we’re perfectly happy that they’re sticking with maybes and when they turn into, ahem, babies, it doesn’t feel like the heartwarming finale we’re looking for. Wong, including the Netflix special Baby Cobra remains one of the funniest standups in recent memory, shows that she can be a charismatic and funny movie star effortlessly, although I would have preferred more opportunities for her to show how funny she can be .
Too often the film leans into over-the-top sentimentality rather than sharp humor, a shame given how fun the film can be, whether it’s the couple questioning Leonardo DiCaprio’s contribution to the climate crisis or Wong mumbling to D’Angelo. While it’s clearly modeled on When Harry Met Sally, there’s also a tedious overreliance on larger setpieces, from an embarrassingly forced physical confrontation to a character relieving himself drunk on stage, moments that resemble the result of a more contemporary model of studio comedy. It’s a film that works best in the small moments, the scenes least suited to the trailer of the two characters just talking, which made When Harry Met Sally so engaging. It’s when the madness escalates that things start to fall apart, especially in a sequence featuring a bizarre cameo from Keanu Reeves as Sasha’s famous new stepdad.
Like many Netflix originals, Always Be My Maybe is laden with a flat, cheap aesthetic, with TV director Nahnatchka Khan failing to make the film any better than a low-budget TV movie (even handsome Reeves is sabotaged by poor quality lighting). Another recurring problem is this rather smug tendency to refer to Netflix during one of their shows or movies and here we get that twice, mostly as Park’s rap trio check the name of the director of the company content, Ted Sarandos, in a song. Note for Netflix: Don’t do this.
It’s admirable to see the streaming giant try to reinvigorate genres that have fallen out of favor on the big screen, with teen film also being a notable example, but there’s also a laziness that underlies the execution. Like Set It Up before it, Always Be My Maybe hits all the beats we’ve come to expect but doesn’t do it well enough, as if the mere existence of a technically well-structured romantic comedy is better than nothing. Due to the ease of access, this may be enough for some viewers, happy to press play without the wait or extra expense. But for those of us still waiting for something truly special, that happy ending remains out of reach.