Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film in theaters on Friday, April 23 with a VOD release to follow on Tuesday, May 11.
“Together Together” features an enviable cast of comedy favorites, from big name faves like Ed Helms and Tig Notaro to the recently crowned prince of weird Julio Torres. But the most exciting performance comes from alt-comedy darling Patti Harrison, who makes an understated splash in her first leading film role. As a recurring presence on TV shows like “Shrill” and “Search Party” and a writer for “Big Mouth,” Harrison’s stand-up is marked by a droll deadpan that borders on antagonistic. That blasé sensibility is rebranded in “Together Together” as a subdued ambivalence that works for the character’s arrested emotional development. Unfortunately, Harrison is the brightest point in “Together Together,” which plods through a gimmicky premise without finding much levity along the way.
This two-hander casts Harrison opposite Ed Helms, a fine comedic actor who tries to brings gravitas to the unremarkable script. Helms is perfectly cast as Matt, a somewhat nerdy straight guy who, after finding himself single in his mid-40s, decides to have a baby on his own. The film opens with Matt interviewing Anna (Harrison), where we learn that she has a dry sense of humor and gave a baby up for adoption as a teenager. Cue the title card and the words “first trimester” in the classic white script of a Woody Allen film.
It’s an unusual and unearned nod to the controversial auteur, one writer/director Nikole Beckwith later doubles down on, when Matt and Anna discuss “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” neither making very salient points about either. Other than a 20-year age difference between the characters, there’s nothing very Allen-esque about “Together Together.” Helms is neither Jewish enough nor neurotic enough to pass as an Allen antihero, and their staid banter about paint chips and pregnancy tea lacks the rhythm or charm of Allen’s dialogue. (It’s a weird enough choice as is, but if you’re gonna ape a problematic fave, you better be able to back it up.)
The unusual nature of their arrangement is milked for muted comedy, though none of it quite lands. There’s the New Age-y doula who must “let go of the third partner idea,” and an awkward confrontation with a crib saleswoman whom Anna calls out for showing Matt preferential treatment. In Beckwith’s insistence on subverting gender roles, she has created an unusual circumstance that strains against its own feminism. Comedy thrives on being relatable. A straight man using a surrogate is so unlikely that it’s hard to play for laughs. In the real world it’s far more likely that Matt would be gay or a woman.
“Together Together” joins a recent string of films that have explored the surrogacy dynamic to various ends. Jeremy Hersh’s “The Surrogate” used the question to explore race and disability; Morgan Ingari’s “Milkwater” took the same comedic approach but with a gay man and a directionless lesbian. Though far from perfect, those films grappled with the power struggles and real world dilemmas of this unique 21st-century phenomenon. “Together Together” is too far up in the clouds of gimmicky plot to say anything meaningful.
As Anna’s pregnancy progresses, Matt is weirdly controlling about her diet and sex life. He asks her to stay at his place so he can be more aware of her movements, and they order pizza and watch the entirety of “Friends.” The script relies heavily on various therapy, birthing classes, and doctor’s appointments to reveal the characters’ emotional states. This is also a chance to bring in some needed comedic filler, which includes Tig Notaro as a surrogacy therapist, “Veep’s” Sufe Bradshaw as a technician, and Jo Firestone as another surrogate.
Torres is the standout of the supporting cast with his under-eye glitter and offbeat non-sequiturs. He’s also tasked with explaining the central relationship to Anna (and by proxy, the audience), when he points out that just because they’re “not fucking, doesn’t mean it’s not a thing.”
The film’s biggest strength is the absence of any sexual or romantic tension between the odd couple at its center. The love story in this subverted rom-com is a friendship, between two people who have found themselves mostly alone for very different reasons. This is made explicit when they declare their “non-creepy” love for one another in a sweet platonic love scene; a refreshing departure from most films’ treatment of friendships between straight men and women.
If it’s taken this long to mention that Harrison is trans, its because the fact is completely inconsequential to the movie. The obvious next step towards more inclusive casting is trans actors playing cis roles, and there can be no doubt that Harrison is playing a cis character in “Together Together.” The films ends with a birth scene. As Anna breathes and pushes her way through a long and punishing labor, Harrison joining a long line of actresses who have dramatized that particular ritual of womanhood for the screen. It looks about as fun as it does in real life; but it’s also a small miracle.
“Together Together” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Dramatic Competition.
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