When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
2021 was a strange year for romantic comedies. Netflix still reliably churned out content, including an abysmal gender-flipped remake of She’s All That and trilogy cappers for the To All The Boys and Kissing Booth franchises. The delightful HBO Max series Starstruck delivered some feel-good Notting Hill vibes in miniseries form. And musicals like In The Heights and Camila Cabello’s Cinderella were fueled by rom-com tropes. But there wasn’t a big zeitgeist-grabbing romantic comedy, the way last year had Palm Springs and Happiest Season. In this strange transitional pandemic year, no one quite seemed to know what we wanted from our romances. It certainly wasn’t Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor pulling off a rom-com heist in the age of COVID in Locked Down.
That’s why the best rom-com of the year isn’t even really a romance at all. In fact, writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s Together Together takes great pains to establish that Matt (Ed Helms) and Anna (Patti Harrison) have no amorous interest in one another. They’re two strangers thrown together by circumstance. Matt is a fortysomething app developer who’s decided he’d like to make the leap into fatherhood. Anna is the twentysomething barista he chooses as his gestational surrogate. Theirs is, in many ways, a business partnership. But since they’re both single, lonely people in San Francisco bonded together by Anna’s pregnancy, they strike up a friendship that goes well beyond the usual parameters of the surrogate/intended parent relationship.
“It’s slightly hard to categorize in a genre,” Beckwith explained of her sophomore feature. “I say it’s funny, but there’s no jokes and there’s drama, but no tragedy and there’s sweetness, but no sap and there’s romance, but no sex.” Together Together enjoyed a warm reception at Sundance in January and opened in limited release in April. It’s currently streaming on Hulu, where it offers 90 minutes of sweet, breezy, deeply heartfelt relationship dramedy about loneliness and connection—exactly the sort of thing perfectly suited for this strange year where we’re all figuring out how to connect and reconnect in different ways than we might have in the past.
Built largely of two-hander scenes, Together Together is interested in the differing ways its protagonists deal with loneliness. Anna is reserved and internal, with clear boundaries for herself. She’s been estranged from her family since high school, when she got pregnant and decided to put the baby up for adoption. Matt, meanwhile, sits right in Helms’ sweet spot of characters who are so emotionally needy they’re practically a raw nerve of vulnerability. His claim to fame is creating a successful app called “Loner” that allows users to passively swipe through strangers’ photos, like Tinder but with no potential for communication or connection. Low pressure, but also low reward—exactly the sort of surface level interaction that romantic comedies are always urging us to move beyond.
Broken into chapters for each of Anna’s three trimesters, the film mirrors the experience of pregnancy—not to mention the three-act structure of a classic opposites-attract romantic comedy. The first trimester is awkward and anxiety-ridden, with Matt and Anna struggling to find their groove as Matt keeps overstepping his boundaries with her pregnancy of his baby. (Together Together comedically heightens the tensions that a lot of surrogates and intended parents probably actually go through.) The second trimester reaches a place of stability and comfort as Matt and Anna bond, appropriately enough, by watching the show Friends. And the third trimester becomes draining and high-stakes in a different kind of way, as Matt and Anna have to reckon with the choices they’ve made and what they mean for their relationship.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of Together Together that does shift into more traditional rom-com territory, especially in intimate scenes like the one where Anna stays over at Matt’s place and wakes him up in the middle of the night so he can feel his baby kick. Part of what drew Harrison to the script was the sense of tension she felt during her first reading, waiting to see if Together Together would actually stick to its convictions or bend to something more conventional. Beckwith deploys romantic comedy tropes and aesthetics to demonstrate that they can be used for different kinds of love. She and cinematographer Frank Barrera shot the film through vintage glass to evoke Nora Ephron’s filmography, and Beckwith purposefully used Woody Allen’s signature font as an act of reclamation. (“You don’t get your own font, you disgusting monster.”)
Together Together isn’t a romance, but it is a love story. And like the best romantic comedies, it’s about connection, vulnerability, and emotional intimacy. “Please don’t see when I’m sad,” Anna tells Matt late in the film after he gently points out that she doesn’t seem okay. In that moment, all she’d like to do is go back to the facades we have in our casual relationships, where we’re not able to immediately spot when someone’s mask slips. But there’s no flipping back that switch, which is both the best and scariest thing about being loved.
“Just because you’re not like ‘together together’ doesn’t mean that you haven’t created a bond,” Anna’s hilariously bizarre coworker (Julio Torres) reminds her. Are Matt and Anna friends? Should they be? Will that friendship continue after the baby is born? And if it doesn’t, is that a bad thing? “We’re so conditioned to believe that the only relationships that matter and are worth fighting for are permanent, or ones that we know will last forever,” Harrison noted in an interview. It’s something A.V. Club film editor A.A. Dowd echoed in his review: “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.”
Maybe the biggest reason to see Together Together is for Harrison’s performance. The comedian has spent the past few years carving out her own signature deadpan niche playing off-kilter characters on shows like Shrill and Search Party, as well as in several standout sketches on I Think You Should Leave. Watching her give an earnest dramatic performance in Together Together is as revelatory as watching Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show—a singular comedic voice suddenly unlocking a whole new set of skills you didn’t even know she had, particularly in the film’s stunner of a last shot.
Harrison finds a good match in Helms, who between this and his Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls spent 2021 delivering interesting, socially conscious work that deploys classic comedy forms to more thoughtful ends. Matt’s ticking-biological-clock desire to have a kid on his own is the sort of story that’s almost exclusively reserved for female characters. Together Together is thoughtful about the unique challenges Matt faces; the only books about single parenting he can find are aimed at women, divorced guys, or widowers, none of which entirely speak to his experience. “I do think part of feminist representation is also changing the way we represent men, not just women,” Beckwith explained. “I think that it’s a whole holistic thing.” But Beckwith knows there’s a flipside here too. In one well-observed scene, a salesclerk treats Anna with pity when she thinks she’s a single mom but fawns over Matt when she learns he’s going to be a single dad.
Beckwith also has a beautiful ear for poetic dialogue, which Helms and Harrison are able to toss off in a way that feels completely natural. “People think I’m giving something up to do this, but I don’t feel that way at all,” Matt tells Anna. “I just feel like I’m pursuing this thing that I care about. It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m actually incredibly hopeful.” When Anna panics about her family judging her for being pregnant again, Matt is able to comfort her by saying, “You have also helped to create two families, by giving the hardest possible gifts. First, your actual kid and now your actual self. They are not silver linings; they’re standalone good things.”
Like the best romantic comedies, Together Together seems simple, but has a lot going on beneath the surface. It’s a movie that rewards multiple viewings, particularly to track the subtle shifts in Matt and Anna’s relationship—the way Matt’s initial neediness melts away into surprising emotional maturity; a funny scene where Anna teaches Matt how to teach his future child to use a tampon. In its thoughtfulness with character and tone, Together Together shares a lot of DNA with Leslye Headland’s Sleeping With Other People and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, two of the best romantic comedies of the 2010s. It also offers a lovely, low-key example of casting a trans actor to play a cis role, which Harrison has talked about wanting to celebrate without letting it define her entire performance.
If the romantic comedy genre exists to explore the nature of human relationships in situations where the stakes are both incredibly high and objectively low, then Together Together delivers. It’s an ode to the people that shape our lives beyond our romantic partners—a rom-com that celebrates the unique ways that families are made, and the power and depth that friendships can have. Together Together doesn’t subvert rom-com tropes so much as broaden their scope to all the relationships in our lives. And that makes it a welcome gift in the strange year that is 2021.
Next time: What makes The Family Stone sparkle?