Comedy increasingly leans on the most awkward situations for laughs, and what could be more awkward than a story about two people with nothing in common except that the woman has agreed to carry the man’s baby?
In Together Together, a winning debut by writer-director Nikole Beckwith, Ed Helms plays a lonely guy in his 40s named Matt who no longer fits in among young people but also doesn’t fit in with his peers, who are busy raising families. He had a girlfriend (for eight years), but that didn’t work out. What now? It’s not that he hears his biological clock ticking, but life has become stuck. “I need to move forward, and it just so happens that I’m doing it by myself,” he says. After a bizarre interview with a coffee-shop barista named Anna (a dryly funny Patti Harrison) — he asks, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” — he hires her to be the surrogate mother of his child. As for the egg, that comes from “Donor 45883.”
What a strange, fragmented, poignant state of human relations. But it’s funny, too. Ours is the age in which people exclaim “Boundaries!” to keep others at bay. At the same time, social, cultural, and technological trends are pushing us apart like never before. Matt’s loneliness is crystallized in his career: He’s the creator of an app called “Loner.” It’s a sort of non-sexual Tinder, and it’s as sad and funny as his non-relationship with Anna. Anna is equally a loner, by the way: She’s estranged from her family because she made the unusual decision, as a teen, to give birth to a child she didn’t want, then put him up for adoption. This detail causes awkwardness with Matt also: Is she pro-choice? Because her history seems to hint she might be pro-life. He wants to seem supportive either way, hence his confused and nonsensical cry, “I’m pro-everything!”
There is some resonance, perhaps unintended, in that remark: Matt is the typical modern man, open to everything, judgmental of nothing, and yet in a world of limitless choice he is depressed and unmoored, one of the legions of free-floating people who never got around to forming permanent attachments, and now find themselves in a spiritual void. Good for Matt that he at least realizes that having a child will raise his life to a higher and more meaningful plane. He’s a droll male equivalent of a familiar female type — the picky middle-aged woman who shops for a sperm donor as though paging through a luxury catalog.
Matt is 20 years older than Anna, and there seems to be no possibility of romance between them. Yet as Matt keeps showing up at her place of employment to annoy her with suggestions that she wear clogs and drink “pregnancy tea,” his dedication comes to seem sweet and even endearing. As bizarre as the situation is, you can sense a conventional rom-com is knocking on the door, trying to get in.
Seinfeldian questions of etiquette arrive: Should there be a baby shower for Matt? Should Anna attend? Of course, she says: The baby “can’t miss its own baby shower.” Should they learn the sex of the baby or would that make it too personal for her? What generic word could they use for the child that would not be at risk of being so personal that it might create emotional feelings in her? (They decide on “Lamp.”) At its most contrived, the movie arranges to have the couple share a home platonically, but that leads to a cute shared project almost as daunting as raising a child together: The two of them to decide to watch every episode of Friends.
This is a movie made, it appears, by liberals who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the story’s conservative implications, and so the ending is a cop-out. At 90 minutes, the film has the structure of a rom-com that ends before its third act. Anna notes, “I’m having a really hard time setting boundaries because I share a body with this thing that I’m supposed to be separate from.” Yeah, that is the issue, isn’t it? You carry a baby inside you, you’re a mother, not an impersonal baby-carrying machine. That’s how it works, and that’s how it has always worked. Culture and technology may push us into ever-more-exotic kinds of human relationships, but they can’t quite expunge what is obvious.