ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” is currently my favorite sitcom on network TV. Not only do we get ’90s nostalgia each week — from Pogs to Tamagotchis — we also revel in Jessica’s stern, no-mercy parenting, Louis’s goofy dad jokes, Eddie’s hip-hop obsession (“yeahhhhh”), Emery’s lady-killer prowess, Evan’s adorably precocious remarks and Grandma’s subtitle translations.
Thus, I was fascinated to watch Constance Wu’s controversial reaction to the show’s renewal for a sixth season, which she later clarified as disappointment that she had to turn down a film project after her box-office success in Golden Globe nominee “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018).
In the meantime, her “Fresh Off the Boat” colleagues are busy dominating their own side project for Netflix, as showrunner Nahnatchka Khan directs her trusted writer Ali Wong and lead actor Randall Park for the totally winning new romantic comedy “Always Be My Maybe.”
Set in San Francisco, the story follows childhood best friends, Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park), who become so close that she views his mother as her own. One virginal teenage night, Marcus manages to escape the “friend zone,” but the fallout is so awkward that the two lose touch. Years later, they reconnect to learn that Sasha is a celebrity chef engaged to her manager (Daniel Dae Kim), while Marcus still lives at home as a struggling hip-hop musician in the nerdcore band Hello Peril. Can love blossom between two old pals?
Anyone who has seen Wong’s stand-up routine “Baby Cobra” (2016) knows that she’s a comic firebrand, strutting on stage with a pregnant belly as she devours societal norms by declaring, “I trapped his a**!” Likewise, Marvel’s “Ant Man & The Wasp” (2018) introduced Park’s comedic timing to a larger blockbuster movie audience as he traded priceless quips with Paul Rudd.
In “Always Be My Maybe,” they create a charming pair with a rare level of chemistry. Wong already seemed to be Wu’s inspiration for her on-screen relationship with Park on TV, while the two have natural off-screen banter (see their IMDB rom-com quiz). From her passionate persona to his affable nature, they combine for the most appealing couple since Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan yanked the rom-com genre out of its coma in “The Big Sick” (2017).
Their authenticity may stem from the fact that they wrote their own lines, penning the script together alongside Michael Golamco (TV’s “Grimm”). The setup recalls “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), asking whether men and women can be “just friends,” while the story beats follow a traditional rom-com structure. And yet, we are constantly engrossed by the universal themes, believable conflicts and rewarding payoffs, which arrive in a surprisingly touching Act Three.
Best of all is a much-memed celebrity cameo by one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. We won’t spoil who it is, but let’s just say that the star’s intentionally pretentious portrayal is so unflattering that you’ll admire the self-deprecation. The sidesplitting sequence unfolds in an upscale restaurant with swanky furniture and pompous menu, followed by a bizarre truth-or-dare nightcap that inspires Park to rap under the end credits with stick-in-your-head lyrics.
It all builds to a red-carpet finale like “Roman Holiday” (1953), but unlike the bittersweet goodbye between Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, this one has a happy ending, as the man leans his head on the woman’s shoulder for a change. Such gender reversals of who “carries the purse” are as admirably subtle as the film’s subversive racial representation.
You’ll note the cast’s Asian heritage isn’t central to the plot like “Crazy Rich Asians.” Rather, it’s just a matter of fact. We need more of this at the movies: diverse perspectives of folks living everyday life. Yes, she’s Vietnamese-Chinese-American and he’s Korean-American, but that’s not the point. This is a love story, plain and simple, a journey that is universal to all cultures.
Stream it now. The title might be “Always Be My Maybe,” but you should see it most definitely.
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