This week’s new release explores a fairly familiar premise in cinema, but with a fresh, modern angle (you can bet that things are truly complicated in this still somewhat new century). To borrow from the old, classic slang for public education, this flick covers the “three R’s”. The subject and the dialogue especially (rather than the imagery) can get fairly graphic, so the “R” rating is pretty much a given. And it is very heavy into relationships, mainly the two very different people at its core. Plus, in the broadest of definitions, this work is a twist on the “rom-com”, though its marketing would suggest a lesser emphasis on the “rom” part. There is the frothy “will they” idea in its premise of a man and a woman entering into an arrangement that skirts into that territory (PRETTY WOMAN would be the most obvious example, perhaps). But don’t look for high gloss “glitz and glamour” here as these two very distant strangers somehow try to keep things “on the up and up” as they are some brought TOGETHER TOGETHER.
After the spartan (white type on a black background) titles, we’re thrust right in the middle of what appears to be a fairly standard job interview. Forty-something Matt (Ed Helms) is going down his checklist of questions for twenty-something, perhaps early thirty-something, Anna (Patti Harrison). Fairly quickly, the inquiries become more personal and alarmingly intimate. Soon it’s revealed that “single guy” Matt wants to be a “single dad” and is considering hiring Anna to carry his “seed” (by medical means, nothing tawdry). It seems something’s missing from his life as a somewhat successful software developer. After some final negotiations, the deal is “sealed”. The duo visit a “specialist”, Dr. Andrews (Rosalind Chao), and later Matt explains his plan to his “already a papa” brother Jacob (Timm Sharp), though he’s in a committed relationship, and his bewildered mother Adele (Nora Dunn) and supportive stepdad Marty (Fred Melamed). As time passes, Anna tries to go about her main job as the manager of a trendy coffee shop while keeping her “side gig” a secret from snarky bored barista Jules (Julio Torres). Unfortunately, Matt can’t keep away from her and pops in at the shop to “check-up”. Anna’s frustrations prompt him to schedule sessions with a relationship therapist Madeline (Tig Notaro). .As the “boundaries” are set up, the pair get to know each other a bit more, so that when some minor health concerns arise, Matt suggests that she should just live in a spare room at his suburban house. But their personalities clash as they continue with Madeline and begin to make check-ups with pediatric nurse Jean (Sufie Bradshaw). Still, as they spend more time together, they wonder if this is more than a “business arrangement”. And just what will happen when the “blessed event’ (or contract conclusion) finally occurs.
Add Matt to the ever-growing list of affable, though a bit anal, leading men in the Helms resume. This time out he’s not the ‘punching bag” dweeb of THE HANGOVER trilogy (no physical humiliations ala facial tattoos and missing teeth), but rather a hybrid of the sweet-natured shlub of CEDAR RAPIDS (ten years ago already) and the often aggressively annoying Andy Bernard of TV’s “The Office”. The big weapon in his character arsenal this time is cool passive aggression, as Matt wants to guilt Anna into his structured agenda. When she resists Helms turns on that needy puppy expression (those quivering moist eyes) that brings a lot of warmth to the brittle “wannabe” pop. Mostly his Matt needs to be in control, so it’s entertaining to see Anna place him in a pit of awkward humiliation as she grills him on proper “feminine hygiene” (watch him sweat and squirm). We know of Helm’s strengths, but the big discovery here is Harrison who’s had small roles in TV and films while also making a name as a writer for “edgy’ TV shows (she just won an “Annie” for the Netflix cartoon “Big Mouth”). Her Anna is tough beyond her years, wrapping herself in an armor forged by years of frustration and disappointment. Early on she “draws a line in the sand”, informing Matt in strong terms when he’s crossed that line (she’s going to hold him to their contract). But Harrison lets us see Anna take a bit of that guard down as she opens up to Matt as the months pass. Anna has turned her back on her own family but is surprised to find a new one, and a bit of a mentor, in Matt. And she also begins to accept kindness after countless offers, when health issues blindside her. It also helps that this “oddest of couples” have the terrific Notaro and Bradshaw to referee their verbal and emotional battles.
Writer/director Nikole Beckwith has created a quirky comedy for this “new normal” that asks us to follow and “root for” this flawed but endearing pair thrown together by fate and a business deal. As stated earlier, much of it rests on the work of the talented main acting team, though Beckwith wisely paired them and guided their work, never losing the reality of the script in order to go for big broad laughs. Much of its humor is mined from the vast well of social awkwardness (that “hygiene” and Matt’s disgust at running into Anna’s overnight “guest”), and “zany” co-workers (Jules is funny and a bit scary), but it doesn’t detract from the emotional growth of the leads. Another strength is the filmmaker’s refusal to take the usual “path”. From the opening titles, it appears we may be going into a Woody Allen-inspired “May/December’ tale, but the characters themselves address it at mid-point, even offering a savage denouncement of those iconic flicks (Anna really tears into the whole cliche). Beckwith keeps the story moving briskly for its trim ninety minutes, never needing to “pad’ with side characters. And kudos for an ending that leaves us wanting to spend a bit more time with this twosome, letting us consider where things could go. Like real life, all is not wrapped up with a perfect bow. But for the duration of their “deal”, you’ll be grateful that these two gifted actors, with their talented director, came TOGETHER TOGETHER.
3 Out of 4
TOGETHER TOGETHER opens in select theatres everywhere on Friday, April 23, 2021