Warning: This post contains spoilers for Always Be My Maybe and When Harry Met Sally.
No disrespect to the orgasmic delights of Katz’s Deli pastrami, but my favorite scene in When Harry Met Sally takes place over empty plates. Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) have set each other up with their respective best friends, Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher). It goes badly. Jess ends up mansplaining about legendary New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin to fellow magazine writer Sally, while Marie and Harry desperately try to make conversation over both being from New Jersey. And then, suddenly, Jess makes a crack about restaurants. They’ve become “too important,” he says.
“I agree,” Marie replies. “Restaurants are to people in the ‘80s what theater was to people in the ‘60s. I read that in a magazine.”
As it turns out, Jess wrote it. Voilà: A woman compliments a man’s job, and it’s a match made in heaven. Nevermind that, as Harry points out, Sally writes for the same magazine — Jess also wrote “Pesto Is The Quiche Of The ‘80s.” He’s going to crack this food conspiracy right open!
I love this exchange because it feels like a friendly wink, as if Nora Ephron, who wrote the script, is smirking with women in the audience a la Fleabag, commiserating about all the times we’ve smiled through the pain as a man asked us about our job, only to interrupt to talk about himself. Yet, watching it again recently, I wished she’d gone further.
Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe has an almost identical moment, right down to Marcus (Randall Park) making fun of the absurdly vibe-y surroundings of a high-end restaurant and the $6,400 bill for paper-thin, monochromatic entrees. He and childhood best friend Sasha (Ali Wong) are on a double date with his girlfriend Jenny (Vivian Bang), and her new hookup, Keanu Reeves. (Whose cameo is worth all the internet hype and then some. My dude’s committed.)
The parallel is hardly a coincidence. Always Be My Maybe is the result of an offhand comment Wong made in an interview three years ago, saying she and Park wanted to make their own version of the 1989 rom-com classic. But this time, Sasha's career is front and center.
Helmed by Fresh Off The Boat director Nahnatchka Khan in her film directorial debut, Always Be My Maybe is groundbreaking in its depiction of Asian-American culture, and its subversion of longstanding tropes.
The film follows former besties Sasha and Marcus, who reunite 16 years after a tragedy, followed by an awkward sexual encounter and a messy falling out, led them on diverging life paths. A celebrity chef, Sasha’s back in her hometown of San Francisco to open a new restaurant, with a layout full of Gubi chairs, and menu even more ambitious than her original Los Angeles take on “nondenominational Vietnamese fusion.” And once she’s done, she’s off to New York, where she’s launching yet another concept eatery. And then you have Marcus, who’s spent the last 16 years sleeping in his childhood bedroom, smoking weed, and playing the same, dive-y venue with his band, Hello Peril. Too scared to take a chance on anything, he uses his mother’s sudden death, and his father’s alleged reliance on him, as an excuse for his inertia.
And while “celebrity chef” falls neatly into the category of improbable job choice that feels glamorous enough for a movie (along with baker, architect, gallery owner, and yes, journalist.) Sasha’s ambition and commitment to her career does not. She’s not dropping everything to hang out in the middle of the day, or avoiding work events to further her love life. She wants a guy who will feel comfortable escorting her to fancy soirees and won’t be emasculated if he needs to carry her purse. What’s more, we actually see her cook. Like, multiple times. There is evidence, from the very first scene in the movie, that this is her passion. The only time we ever saw Sally writing was to underscore a sequence about Harry and her struggle with depression after their respective breakups.
At this point, Always Be My Maybe isn’t so much an outlier as it is a natural extension of a rom-com renaissance that’s breathing fresh life into a stale genre. Still, it’s the rare story that really nails the idea of a woman refusing to sacrifice her career for a man — with no adverse consequences. That’s a concept that’s remained elusive even in Netflix’s slew of new and improved rom-coms. Set It Up’s Harper (Zoey Deutch) wanted to be a respected sports writer, but watched her boss’ love life evaporate the higher she climbed up the corporate ladder. Someone Great’s Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) felt supported and encouraged by partner Nate (Lakeith Stanfield) in her pursuit of the dream job as a music writer for Rolling Stone, until she didn’t, and they broke up.
At the end of Always Be My Maybe, Sasha and Marcus finally put their differences aside and reunite in the traditional rom-com Grand Gesture. But it’s significant that the sweep-her-off-her-feet-with-a-big-speech moment happens at an event celebrating Sasha’s career achievements, and after Marcus has set his own priorities straight and started to get his act together. He’s finally able to support her in the way she deserves, and without her having to apologize for it. Compare that to say, The Devil Wears Prada, in which Andy (Anne Hathaway) is constantly subjected to guilt from her Jarlsburg-loving boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) and friends because she’s working too hard in her entry-level job that’s a stepping stone to her dream career.
In When Harry Met Sally, the happy ending is two best friends getting together to plan a wedding with the most custom food arrangements known to man. Always Be My Maybe suggests you can have that, and three thriving restaurants — with more to come.