Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Together Together arranges a touching platonic love story for Ed Helms and Patti Harrison

Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in Together Together
Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in Together Together
Photo: Bleecker Street

Note: The writer of this review watched Together Together on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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There’s a running gag about binge-watching Friends in the sweet, amiable, mildly subversive indie comedy Together Together. It’s not a knee-slapper, exactly—the film uses a ’90s primetime phenomenon that’s become a shorthand for basic pop culture taste as an easy way to bridge the generational gap between two people growing closer. Intentionally or not, the joke mostly just underscores how much writer-director Nikole Beckwith drifts toward sitcom territory while still skirting the platitudes of shows more formulaic than NBC’s mega-hit. Maybe, in the end, it’s just an exceptionally simple way to telegraph what Together Together is really about: This is a portrait of strictly platonic love—of strangers becoming friends, sometimes while watching Friends.

The main characters are total strangers at the start. We meet them as they’re meeting each other. Matt (Ed Helms), an app designer in San Francisco, is 45 and single and looking to have a baby. Anna (Patti Harrison), the barista he’s interviewing, is 26 and single and applying to be his gestational surrogate. Anna had a child when she was still in high school and gave it up for adoption. Many of the women who go through this process have raised a kid, Matt remarks during their initial conversation. But why should that matter, Anna politely counters—if anything, she knows what it’s like to carry a child she won’t keep. Anyway, as a middle-aged bachelor, Matt doesn’t entirely fit the usual surrogacy profile either. He’s alone, as Anna blurts out and then self-consciously walks back during their meet-cringe—a sharply cut opening scene that sets the awkward tone and efficiently lays out the dynamic between the two.

For a while, it’s all squirmy social discomfort. Early interactions skew broad, as the nervous Matt proves overbearing in his monitoring of Anna’s diet and sex life, the dialogue landing squarely within The Office star’s comfort zone of stilted small talk and passive aggression. But as these respective loners loosen up, the movie does, too. Together Together is nearly a two-hander in how often it’s just Matt and Anna alone in the frame, renegotiating the boundaries of a relationship that’s intimate and professional, and which begins to take on the shape of something more. They develop a warm rapport, fortified by the chemistry between two actors jumping at the opportunity to deepen their résumés. Harrison, a reliable punchline machine on the small screen (her I Think You Should Leave sketch is unforgettable), wedges vulnerability between the cracks of her dry humor. And Helms tamps down hard on his signature uptight dork routine, to surprisingly affecting (and restrained) effect. They pair nicely, these moonlighting comedians.

The relationship never threatens to become a romance. In fact, Together Together arguably goes overboard in heading off viewer concerns regarding that possibility, with a discussion about age-appropriate dating and Woody Allen. (If the film’s font choices, cozy café backdrops, and abundance of big-city chitchat vaguely recall the disgraced filmmaker’s brand of talky romantic comedy, Anna’s withering critique of his classics loudly labors to assure everyone that Beckwith is no fan). When Matt and Anna finally utter the “L” word, it’s a moving and almost casual expression of non-amorous communion. The film gently sidesteps expectations in other respects, too. There’s no expositional scene over-explaining why Matt hasn’t found someone, why he’s ready to start parenthood as a single dad. And as it eventually becomes clear, the danger of separation anxiety that looms over the film has nothing to do with the baby growing inside Anna; it’s the impending probability that the due date is also an expiration date for the unexpected bond she’s forged with the father.

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That’s what’s ultimately touching and even a little complicated about this Sundance selection: It’s an ode to the way that even impermanent relationships can be profoundly meaningful. Together Together falters only when it’s creating some unwelcome continuity between its own seriocomic material and the 10 seasons of network hijinks Matt and Anna tear through over three trimesters. The margins of the movie are filled out with a murderers’ row of funny people—Tig Notaro! Fred Melamed! Nora Dunn! Sufe Bradshaw!—and yet all seem to be occupying a slightly zanier comic universe, periodically tilting the story toward sitcomish incident and improvish banter. It almost feels like deck stacking, designed to make us crave the moments that simply drop our hero and heroine into a scene alone, with no loud comedic backup to distract from their blooming Gen X-millennial compatibility. But maybe that’s the essence of how deep, truly life-changing friendships make us feel: When you’re with the one you platonically love, the rest of the world is just in the way.