“Always Be My Maybe” feels a lot like a movie propped up by a stunt, a high-gloss romantic comedy so mired in triteness and unconvincing emotions that its main recommendation is the appealing diversity of its cast.
That stunt is a wonderfully self-deprecating appearance by Keanu Reeves, but we’ll get to him in a moment. The early scenes, set in San Francisco in the 1990s, have a charming ease as young Sasha (Miya Cech), a lonely only child, finds solace at the home of her friend and neighbor, Marcus (Emerson Min). The enticing Korean meals cooked by Marcus’s mother (Susan Park) are especially consoling, so it’s no surprise to find the adult Sasha (the dauntingly confident Ali Wong) swanning around Los Angeles as a glitzy celebrity chef.
One-pot comfort food, though, has been replaced by elaborate plates of Instagrammable art, which is how we know that Sasha has lost touch with her roots. The movie is rife with this kind of shorthand, sketching characters’ flaws and attributes in broad sitcom strokes: Sasha’s faithless and short-lived fiancé, a restaurateur who practices capoeira, gives Daniel Dae Kim little to play but an empty suit. Even so, he’s a more credible partner for Sasha than Marcus (a bashful Randall Park), who might look like an adult but hasn’t yet figured out how to behave like one.
When they reunite, he’s a grumpy, ambitionless air-conditioning technician and the frontman for an ear-shreddingly awful band, still driving the car he lost his virginity in 15 years earlier. Once again, we have a smart, successful woman hooking up with a weed-smoking low achiever, albeit one who bucks formula somewhat by failing to drag her down to his level. (It’s hard to imagine anyone played by Wong, who first drew attention for her outrageously funny 2016 special “Baby Cobra,” being dragged anywhere she doesn’t want to go.) Small consolation in a movie littered with Spanx jokes, money-focused Asian stereotypes and embarrassingly humorless setups. One particularly wince-worthy scene has Marcus ruin his band’s crucial audition by drunkenly relieving himself on an amplifier.
Directed by Nahnatchka Khan, the showrunner of the sharp ABC comedy “Fresh Off the Boat” (which Park stars in and Wong used to write for), “Always Be My Maybe” never shakes off those sitcom shackles. It does, however, gain a lot of mileage by lampooning a familiar kind of culinary ostentatiousness — like Sasha promising that her latest establishment will feature “transdenominational” Vietnamese food — that peaks in a perfectly staged dinner for four in a restaurant whose name, Maximal, says it all.
Into this circus of edible absurdity (the meal was scrupulously designed by the kaiseki chef Niki Nakayama) strides Reeves, in windblown slow-motion and accompanied by lustful growls on the soundtrack, as if borne on the back of a horny elephant. Playing Sasha’s celebrity squeeze, Reeves has enormous fun spoofing his action-movie persona and pricking Hollywood pretensions. But he’s a trick, a pointless publicity bomb whose explosion only highlights Marcus and Sasha’s complete lack of sexual chemistry. Their friendship feels real; their romance as unlikely as the food served at Maximal.
Always Be My Maybe
Rated PG-13 for teens getting deflowered and adults getting aroused. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.