Culture Representation: Taking place in Passaic County, New York, the comedy musical film “Theater Camp” features a predominantly cast of characters (with some Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A financially struggling summer camp, which is for tweens and teens, rehearses and performs an original musical while the camp faces a hostile takeover from an investment company that owns a rival camp.
Culture Audience: “Theater Camp” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and comedies that are satires of summer camps and youthful musical theater.
“Theater Camp’s” mockumentary style of comedy is at times a little too self-aware and smug. However, this movie about a musical theater group at a summer camp makes great use of eccentric and memorable characters who range from charming to annoying. It’s not a classic on the level of 1996’s “Waiting for Guffman,” but “Theater Camp” is the type of movie that is bound to have a very devoted group of fans. “Theater Camp” has its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast.
Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman (who co-wrote the “Theater Camp” screenplay with Noah Galvin, “Theater Camp” is based on the 2020 short film of the same name, which was directed by Lieberman and had the same writers as the feature-length “Theater Camp.” Both movies have some of the same cast members, including Gordon, Galvin, Ben Platt and Patti Harrison. However, the characters in each are different.
In the feature-length “Theater Camp” (which takes place in Passaic County, New York, and was filmed in Warwick, New York), a longtime summer camp called the Adirond Acts (a play on words of the Adironacks Mountains in New York state) is on the verge of shutting down, due to financial problems. The children who attend this camp range in ages from 10 to 17. Amos Klobuchar (played by Platt) is the camp’s head of drama. Rebecca-Diane (played by Gordon) is the camp’s head of music.
Amos and Rebecca-Diane are best friends and have been teaching at the camp for the past 10 years. Every year, Amos and Rebecca-Diane write, compose and direct a new stage musical for the camp. Their past musicals include “Blackmail and Botox,” “The Briefcase, the Door and the Salad” and “A Hanukkah Divorce.” This year, they have to write and produce an original stage musical for the camp in only three weeks. It’s called Joan, Still.” And it’s all being filmed for a documentary.
The opening scene of “Theater Camp” takes place at Greenwood Middle School in the late spring. Adirond Acts camp founder Joan Rabinsky (played by Amy Sedaris) is attending a performance of the school’s production of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” Joan is the subject of this documentary that is the basis for the “Theater Camp” mockumentary. Joan has told only a few people that Adirond Acts is close to shutting down.
At the school’s performance area, Adirond Acts camp manager Rita Cohen (played by Caroline Aaron): “We have to give Taylor the lead in ‘Les Miz.'” Joan asks, “Why Taylor? He’s awful.” Rita replies, “I know, but his parents are so rich.” Joan says, “Come on. You know we don’t do things that way. It’s always got to be about the talent. How rich?” Rita responds, “So rich!”
Things don’t go well for Joan during this “Bye Bye Birdie” performance. The lighting during the performance gives Joan a seizure. After just one day of filming the documentary, Joan has to walk with a cane and is recovering from her seizure. The decision is made to keep filming, but Joan has put her obnoxious stoner son Troy Rubinsky (played by Jimmy Tatro) temporarily in charge of Adirond Acts.
Troy is a business vlogger who calls himself a “financial guru and a worldwide business mentor.” The only things he seems to be good at are showing how unintelligent he is and getting in the way of people trying to do their work at the camp. As irritating as Troy is, there’s no denying that he has some of the funniest lines in “Theater Camp.” Tatro is a scene stealer in this role.
In order to cut costs, Troy laid off a number of out-of-the-area teachers at the camp. Troy wants to hire locally, so he places an ad to find local teachers. Only one person answers the ad and she has no experience in teaching. Her name is Janet Walch (played by Ayo Edebiri), who is willing to learn on the job. Janet is predictably incompetent in many ways in this job that is new to her.
The other adult employees at the camp are experienced, but they are stressed-out when they hear that the camp’s original musical hasn’t been written yet and it’s supposed to do its first performance in three weeks. Stage manager/technical director Glenn Winthrop (played by Galvin) is nerdy and earnest. Costume designer Gigi Carbonier (played by Owen Thiele) is stereotypically flamboyant. Head of dance Clive Dewitt (played by Nathan Lee Graham) is drolly sarcastic.
Watching all of these proceedings closely is schemer Caroline Krauss (played by Harrison) from Camp Lakeside, where most of the kids come from rich families. Caroline is a junior project manager at Barnesnell Capital, an investment group. Caroline knows that the bank has filed a notice of default for Adirond Acts. Caroline tells Troy, that Barnesnell Capital “would love to get in bed with Adirond Acts.” Glenn warns Troy not to do business with Barnesnell Capital.
“Theater Camp” is more like a series of sketches threaded together instead of a deeply layered story. There’s a frenetic tone to the movie that’s supposed to match the tension of doing a hastily made stage musical. The kids in the musical are not given as much importance in “Theater Camp” as the adults who are scrambling to finish the musical on time while pretending to the kids that they have everything under control.
Most of “Theater Camp” will offer mild chuckles instead of non-stop, laugh-out-loud moments. Its not a movie with much subtlety, because it goes down a predictable path of “Look at all these neurotic people” and “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” The “Theater Camp” cast members have very good comedic timing though, with Platt and Gordon giving believable performances as longtime friends who are musical theater fanatics.
As directors, Gordon and Lieberman bring a brisk pace to the movie, although some moments tend to get repetitive. The movie’s running joke is that “Joan, Still” has some sections that are not appropriate for children. Toward the end of “Theater Camp,” there’s a hilarious surprise, which is one of the more original ideas in the film. As a mockumentary, “Theater Camp” mostly succeeds as a parody of real summer camps and youthful music theater, but people who dislike musical theater will probably find this movie very hard to enjoy.
Searchlight Pictures released “Theater Camp” in select U.S. cinemas on July 21, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the California cities of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the comedy film “Mack & Rita” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 30-year-old woman, who feels older than most of her peers, wishes that she were just like her beloved and now-deceased grandmother, and she’s shocked when her wish comes true, and she physically becomes a woman in her 70s.
Culture Audience: “Mack & Rita” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Diane Keaton and don’t mind seeing terrible movies that insult viewers’ intelligence and make the cast members look like idiots.
Diane Keaton, please do not allow anyone to talk you into doing embarrassing garbage movies like “Mack & Rita” ever again. If anyone has the misfortune of watching this pathetic excuse for a comedy film, be warned that it is less likely to make you laugh and more likely to make you sad and maybe a little angry that this is the type of moronic junk that Oscar-winning acting legend Keaton has been reduced to doing. And to make matters worse, Keaton is one of the producers of “Mack & Rita,” so she sunk some of her own money into helping make this atrocious flop.
“Mack & Rita” is supposed to be a female empowerment film. It’s supposed to be a comedy film that’s funny. But just because a woman (Katie Aselton) directed “Mack & Rita,” and just because a woman (Madeline Walter) co-wrote the screenplay doesn’t automatically make this train wreck any good. (Walter wrote the “Mack & Rita” screenplay with Paul Welsh.) In fact, “Mack & Rita” is such an abomination that makes women in the movie look so flaky and ditsy, it’s the opposite of a female empowerment film.
“Mack & Rita” is the third feature film directed by Aselton, who is probably best known to movie audiences as an actress in movies and TV. Her credits as an actress include supporting roles in movies such as 2019’s “Bombshell” and 2018’s “Book Club.” She previously directed and starred in the 2013 horror flick “Black Rock,” an independent film (written by her husband, Mark Duplass) that got mixed reviews. Aselton’s feature-film directorial debut was 2010’s “The Freebie,” a mediocre and lightweight comedy that she wrote. Aselton and Dax Shepard co-starred in “The Freebie” as a married couple allowing each other one night of infidelity. In other words, Aselton has been on plenty of film sets to know better than to dump the trashy “Mack & Rita” into the world.
Comedies about body switches or body transformations need to have cast members with authentic-looking chemistry, in order to make the movies work well. On top of that, even if the story involves sci-fi or fantasy, at least some part of it has to be believable, starting with the way that the characters react to this body change. Unfortunately, “Mack & Rita” fails in every bare minimum of these requirements.
“Mack and Rita” also does a lot of unappealing perpetuating of negative stereotypes of women over the age of 70, by making it look like women in this age group have sex appeal that shrivels up like wrinkled skin. Except for the character played by Keaton, all of the senior citizen women who are supporting characters in “Mack & Rita” just sit around, guzzle wine, and gossip about other people’s love lives, but they don’t have love lives of their own. And when the character played by Keaton does have some romance, it’s played for cringeworthy laughs because (gasp!) she kisses a man who’s young enough to be her son.
“Mack & Rita” has an odd mix of talented cast members and not-so-talented cast members that make their scenes together very hard to watch. The opening scene of the movie shows a quick montage flashback of lead character Mackenzie “Mack” Martin as a 9-year-old (played by Molly Duplass, daughter of Aselton and Mark Duplass) being raised by her sassy grandmother, who’s only given the name Grammie Martin (played by Catherine Carlen) in the movie. It’s explained later that Mack’s parents are deceased. Mack was very close to Grammie Martin, who died sometime when Mack became an adult. Mack admired her grandmother’s confidence and still wishes that she could be more like her.
Mack has now grown up to be a 30-year-old bachelorette writer (played by Elizabeth Lail) living in a Los Angeles apartment building with her dog Cheese. Her only book so far (a collection of personal essays about her grandmother) was a modest hit, but Mack hasn’t had much luck getting a publishing deal for her second book. In the meantime, Mack’s abrasive and snobby agent Stephanie (played by Patti Harrison) has been pushing Mack to become a social media influencer who gets paid for endorsing products and services. Stephanie sneers to Mack in a phone conversation: “Remember, if you’re not getting paid for something, it’s a hobby. And hobbies are disgusting.”
The adult Mack explains in a voiceover: “I grew up always feeling like I was an older woman trapped in the body of a little girl. I think that’s why I was so found of the term ‘old gal.” I was raised by my grandma, who was the coolest ‘old gal’ I ever knew. She would say, ‘Well, that’s because I’m old. I’ve got less time to live, so I’ve got less flips to give.” Get used to the cringeworthy talk in “Mack & Rita,” because this horrible movie is full of it.
Mack continues in her voiceover: “All I wanted was to be like Grammie Martin, but like any kid, I had to fit in. Over the years, I had to hide what I thought was cool. And you know what? It worked pretty well … I did my darndest to keep my inner old gal to myself.”
The movie then rushes through an explanation that Mack will soon be going to Palm Springs for the weekend to attend the bachelorette party of her best friend Carla (played by Taylour Paige), in a house lent to them by a friend of Carla’s mother Sharon (played by Loretta Devine). Before she leaves for her trip, Mack meets with her bachelor next-door neighbor Jack (played by Dustin Milligan), a private wealth manager who’s also 30 years old. Jack has agreed to be the dogsitter for Cheese while Mack is away for the weekend in Palm Springs. (As soon as you see Jack on screen, it’s obvious he will be Mack’s love interest.)
Mack and Jack exchange some awkward small talk because they’re both attracted to each other but don’t want to come right out and say it. He asks her if she would like to go skateboarding with him sometime. Mack politely declines. “Mack & Rita” tells no details about Mack’s previous dating experiences, but the movie repeatedly implies that because Mack wants to be just like her grandmother, she thinks that means she has to live life like the worst stereotype of a boring old lady.
One of the most annoying things about “Mack & Rita” is that it makes people who are supposed to be in their 30s act like they have the emotional maturity of teenagers who are still in high school. There’s Jack and his semi-obsession with skateboarding and expecting women who date him to be interested in skateboarding too. And later, when Mack meets up with Carla and their two airhead bachelorette friends Sunita (played by Aimee Carrero) and Molly (played by Lauren Beveridge), this arrested development in emotional maturity is also on full display.
Mack tells Carla, Sunita and Molly about turning down Jack’s invitation for a skateboarding date. Mack says that this rejection is because she’s afraid that Jack could be a Lothario. It’s an example of Mack being paranoid about dating, because Jack has not shown any indication that he’s a jerk or a creep.
Sunita and Molly then repeatedly ask Mack what a Lothario is. Mack has trouble explaining it to them until she uses the word “player.” Apparently, the “Mack & Rita” filmmakers want people to equate “vocabulary intelligence” with “mentality of a boring old lady,” and that the average 30-year-old woman can’t possibly know what the word Lothario means.
Sunita and Molly are self-absorbed, yammering characters whose personalities are indistinguishable from one another. Molly and Sunita only seem to care about what they see and post about themselves on social media. Carla is portrayed as a loyal and accepting friend who tries to give Mack more confidence and a lot of understanding.
However, Carla’s patience is tested when the “body transformation” happens to Mack, who ends up becoming a popular social media influencer in her new “old woman” body, and Mack becomes an unreliable friend. This information was already revealed in the “Mack & Rita” trailer. You know a movie is bottom-of-the-barrel rubbish when there’s nothing salvagable that can be edited to make the movie’s trailer look interesting.
While the four gal pals are hanging out at a restaurant for lunch, Mack sees two elderly woman dining together at a nearby outdoor cafe. Mack says that she envies how life seems to be so simple for these senior citizens because these old women know who they are and what they want. Mind you, Mack knows nothing about these women or what their conversation is about, so she really has no idea if these women are as happy or as confident as she assumes they are. Mack has a weird fixation on thinking that women of retirement age are supposed to be happier than any other women just because elderly women have lived that long and are old enough to retire. It’s a very misguided and ignorant over-simplication of women.
Mack tells Carla when Mack points out the two elderly women having lunch together: “I want to be like them: just sitting around and falling asleep until someone shakes me awake.” What a condescending and ageist perception of elderly women. “Mack & Rita” repeatedly pounds this negative stereotype that women over the age of 70 are supposed to be boring, and then uses this unflattering perception as a flimsy plot device that’s not only stupid but it’s also offensive. The entire terrible premise of “Mack & Rita” is that any woman over the age of 70 who is not boring is the exception and probably does things that deserve to have people laughing at her because she’s supposed to be “too old” to do those things.
Mack’s body transformation happens as body transformations do in dimwitted and lazy movies: by a force of nature that is never explained in the movie. Mack sees a pop-up tent near the restaurant. The tent is advertising New Age type of services with the slogan “Regress and be blessed” written on a makeshift sign.
Out of curiosity, Mack goes in the tent and finds a spaced-out wannabe guru named Luka (played by Simon Rex, in an awful, hammy performance), who tells her to lie down in a run-down-looking tanning bed and think of any wish that she wants to come true. Mack wishes exactly what you think she wishes: “I want to be Grammie Martin!” Mack also shouts, “I’m a 70-year-old woman trapped in a body of a 30-year-old who just needs a minute to rest!”
Wind gusts suddenly appear in the tanning bed like a mini-tornado. And when Mack emerges from the tanning bed, she’s horrified to see that she now looks like an elderly version of herself (played by Keaton), so the expected hysterical skrieking ensues. Luka suddenly is nowhere to be found to change Mack back into her “normal” self. Luka’s disappearance is just the movie’s way of stretching out the excruciatingly bad scenarios that Mack experiences as the elderly version of herself.
While still adjusting to the shock of her body transformation, Mack shows up at the borrowed house in Palm Springs, where Carla predictably thinks Mack is an intruder. But once Mack proves to Carla that she really is Mack—just trapped in a 70-year-old body—Carla easily accepts everything like it’s not that big of a deal. “Mack & Rita” is so poorly written, the bachelorette party is never shown, and Carla is never seen having a conversation with her groom-to-be (whose name is never mentioned in the movie), even though there’s a plot development involving the wedding rehearsal dinner. The groom is never seen talking and has a brief “blink and you’ll miss it” appearance where he’s seen with Carla in a car.
Expect to see a silly montage of Carla and “elderly” Mack doing various things to try to make Mack look younger, such as going to a rigorous fitness trainer (just an excuse to put Keaton and her stunt double in awkward physical positions) or beauty salons, as if putting on some skin cream will somehow make Mack look younger. And there are the usual pratfalls and “I’m too old for this” clumsiness from “elderly” Mack, because the movie wants to make it hilarious to laugh at elderly people who might have physical limitations. It’s all so witless and tiresome.
In one of the movie’s worst scenes, “elderly” Mack takes Carla’s advice to drink psychedelic mushrooms with some tea. It leads to a very unfunny scenario of Mack hallucinating, with very cheap-looking visual effects used in the movie. Mack’s hallucinations include thinking that her dog is talking to her. Martin Short is the voice of the dog in this scene. It’s a good thing that Short isn’t on camera, thereby sparing him the humiliation of being seen in this horrendous dreck.
And who exactly is the “Rita” in “Mack & Rita”? When “elderly” Mack goes back to her apartment, she lies to Jack and says that she is Mack’s aunt Rita. The lie is that Rita (who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona) and Mack decided to do an apartment exchange while Mack is in Scottsdale for a writer’s retreat. Jack is a little taken by surprise by Rita, but because he doesn’t know Mack and her family very well, he easily believes this lie.
It’s the same lie that’s told to Carla’s outspoken and meddling mother Sharon and Sharon’s three nosy best friends: cranky Betty (played by Lois Smith), jolly Carol (played by Amy Hill) and sarcastic Angela (played by Wendie Malick), who are all the wine-guzzling, gossipy old lady stereotypes that make “Mack & Rita” such a trite and insulting portrayal of older women. Betty is the one who owns the house in Palm Springs. Sharon is an openly queer woman who divorced her husband (Carla’s father), and then married a woman, who is now deceased. The only reason this information about Sharon’s love life is in the movie is to make Sharon a negative stereotype of an elderly woman who’s bitter about not currently having a love partner.
The younger female characters in the movie aren’t much better when it comes to shallow clichés, except for Carla, who is the only one who comes across as having a believable personality and a life that doesn’t revolve around envying other people or gossiping about them. (Paige, who’s stuck in the thankless role as Carla, sometimes looks like she knows she’s in a bad movie, but perhaps she needed the money.) Mack as a 30-year-old is just insufferably ignorant, and it doesn’t help that Lail gives the worst performance in the cast. Luckily, the 30-year-old Mack doesn’t have much screen time, compared to 70-year-old Mack/Rita whose depiction is appalling enough.
Far from making the “elderly” Mack/Rita look stylish, the substandard costume design for the “elderly” Mack/Rita consists of mostly ill-fitting (usually too large) embarrassments. Who in their right mind thinks anyone looks good in an oversized plaid blazer paired with an oversized polka dot A-line skirt? But there “elderly” Mack/Rita is, wearing one of these many clownish-looking outfits in “Mack & Rita.”
Everything about “Mack & Rita” looks like an outdated sitcom that was rejected decades ago. It’s also a fake feminist film. If Mack gets a “happy ending” (her romance with Jack; finding Luka to turn her back to her “normal” self), it’s all dependent on getting a man to like her. Mack shows no real independence or personal growth. The romance in this movie is as dull as dull can be.
“Mack & Rita” is just a series of abysmal slapstick scenes and forced, terrible scenarios where people are supposed to laugh at the sight of a woman in her 70s doing things that younger people usually do—and she gets mocked for it in one way or another. Making an entire movie about putting an elderly woman in humiliating situations is not amusing. It’s misogynistic. Movie audiences and someone with Keaton’s caliber of talent deserve so much better.
Gravitas Premiere released “Mack & Rita” in U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of the world, the comedy film “The Lost City” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A famous, jaded and reclusive romance novelist is kidnapped by a wealthy treasure hunter, and the male model for her book covers goes on a mission to rescue her.
Culture Audience: “The Lost City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s comedy skills, but they are the biggest assets to this formulaic movie.
Completely predictable on every level, “The Lost City” is saved by the considerable comedic talents of its starring cast members. It’s breezy and lightweight entertainment that doesn’t try to be anything else. It’s the first slapstick comedy film in years for many of “The Lost City” stars. And while the movie is not a complete triumph, it’s not a total embarrassment either. “The Lost City” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
Directed by brothers Aaron Nee and Adam Nee, “The Lost City” checks all the boxes we’ve come to expect in predictable romantic comedies. The female protagonist and the male protagonist have personality clashes and try not to pretend there’s sexual tension between them. (Or they have a platonic friendship where they pretend that they’re not going to get romantically involved.) There’s usually at least one sidekick who’s a best friend or close colleague. And then, there’s some reason why the bickering, would-be couple have a reason to keep running into each other and/or they get thrown together for a common goal.
In “The Lost City” (written by the Nee brothers, Dana Fox and Orien Uziel), the basic concept is that prickly and reclusive author Loretta Sage (played by Sandra Bullock), a widow whose specialty is romantic adventure novels, reluctantly goes on a book tour to promote her latest book called “The Lost City.” Loretta is not pleased at all to find out that the guy who is the hunky model for her book covers will be on this book tour too. Loretta thinks that he’s shallow, vain and no match for her intellect.
The name he uses as a model is Dash (played by Channing Tatum), but his real name is Alan McMahon. And he wears a long-haired blonde wig for his modeling assignments as Dash. Dash/Alan is as freewheeling as Loretta (whose real name is Angela) is uptight. Loretta’s support team includes her loyal and outspoken book publisher Beth Hatten (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Loretta’s eager-to-please social media manager Allison (played by Patti Harrison), who has the Nervous Nellie role in the movie.
At a meet-and-greet appearance with Loretta’s mostly female fans, Dash gets a lot more attention than Loretta, just as she feared and predicted. (Bowen Yang has a cameo as a Q&A moderator named Ray.) Loretta doesn’t have long to gripe about Dash’s popularity though, because she’s kidnapped from the hotel by a wealthy superfan named Abigail Fairfax (played by Daniel Radcliffe), who takes himself, some of his goons and Loretta by private plane to a tropical island, where he expects her to find the treasure that she wrote about in “The Lost City.” Alan feels bad about his conflicts with Loretta, so he decides to come to her rescue.
Dash/Alan recruits a rescue expert named Jack Trainer (played by Brad Pitt), who is ridiculously over-the-top with his action hero stunts. Jack isn’t in the movie for long, for every reason that you think that an A-list star like Pitt wouldn’t add his usual eight-figure actor’s salary to this movie’s production budget, if he had more screen time. More shenanigans ensue in a jungle, and the movie ends exactly how most people will think it ends.
One of the main reasons why “The Lost City” is tolerable despite its utter triteness is because of the comedic timing and chemistry of Bullock and Tatum, who thankfully do not take themselves seriously at all. Their characters’ back-and-forth banter isn’t very witty, but they do land some memorable zingers here and there. During one of their many arguments, Loretta tells Alan in a prickly manner why she can’t give sexist condescension: “I’m a woman. I can’t mansplain anything.” Alan snaps back: “I’m a feminist, and I think a woman can do anything a man can do.”
Radcliffe also has some amusing moments, as does Randolph, although Randolph does have the type of “You go, girl!” dialogue that’s kind of a cringeworthy stereotype of an African American female sidekick. Oscar Nuñez as has an inconsequential role as a man named Oscar, who becomes infatuated with Beth. “The Lost City” is exactly what it needs to be for a movie that wisely kept its total running time to a little under two hours. (Stick around for a surprise during the mid-credits scene.) Unless someone is in an extremely bad mood when watching “The Lost City,” there are some laughs to be had with this entertaining but insubstantial comedy film.
Paramount Pictures will release “The Lost City” in U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2022, with sneak previews in select cinemas on March 23, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in San Francisco, the dramedy film “Together Together” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A middle-aged bachelor hires a surrogate to carry his first child, and the two sometimes have conflicts over his controlling and neurotic ways during the pregnancy.
Culture Audience: “Together Together” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing a unique and sometimes comedic spin on society’s stereotypes of single fathers and surrogates.
“Together Together” pokes fun at and exposes a lot of preconceptions that people might have of gender roles, when it comes to people who choose to start a family without a partner and what it means to be a pregnancy surrogate in this situation. Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith, the movie adeptly combines comedy and drama without reducing the characters to becoming punchlines or melodramatic caricatures. Patti Harrison stands out for her winning performance as a conflicted 26-year-old named Anna, who decides to become a pregnancy surrogate and finds out that she’s not the only person in the surrogacy arrangement who has to deal with gender biases.
That’s because Anna is a surrogate for someone who typically doesn’t hire a surrogate to become a first-time parent: a heterosexual, never-married bachelor in his 40s who isn’t waiting to find his soul mate/life partner to start a family. This 45-year-old bachelor is named Matt (played by Ed Helms), and he and Anna both live in San Francisco, which makes it easier for them to see each other during the pregnancy. However, living in the same city also makes it easier for neurotic Matt to try to meddle in Anna’s life and control how she lives during the pregnancy.
Matt has a well-meaning tone to his control-freak ways, so he’s not as irritating in the movie as he could be. And certainly, Helms is skilled at playing an awkward nerd to comedic effect, since he’s been typecast in doing this type of character for most of his on-screen roles. What makes “Together Together” so entertaining to watch is the chemistry between Harrison and Helms as Anna and Matt. At first, Matt and Anna appear to be a mismatch, but they end up finding that they have a lot in common when it comes to feeling like misfits in their own families.
“Together Together” begins with Matt (who is an app developer) interviewing Anna (who’s a coffee shop barista) for the surrogacy arrangement. The conversation is clearly uncomfortable for both of them, but they try to make the best out of the situation without offending the other person. Because most people watching “Together Together” already know that Anna was chosen for this surrogacy arrangement, the movie doesn’t waste time with contrivances such as Matt interviewing other candidates.
During the interview, Matt asks Anna: “Have you ever stolen anything?” Anna replies, “Pens.” Matt then asks, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Anna says, “That’s private.” His next question is, “Are you religious?” Her reply: “No. My family is, but we’re not close.”
When Matt asks Anna why she wants to be a pregnancy surrogate for him, Anna says, “This appeals to me because I know it’s not the best thing in the world to be alone.” As soon as she says it, Anna gets flustered because she knows that remark comes across as judgmental, so she apologizes profusely for making this potentially offensive remark and tries to clarify.
“I meant being alone isn’t a bad thing,” Anna comments. “I meant if family is important to someone, they should be able to make one. Plus, [I want] the money, not in a bad way. Putting a little karma in the bank never hurt anyone.” This back-and-forth mumblecore-like banter goes on for a few more minutes. And when it’s time for Anna to ask Matt any questions, she asks, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” And then, the scene ends.
It sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which divides its screenplay’s three acts according to each trimester of Anna’s pregnancy. In case viewers don’t know, the movie literally spells it out in title cards: “First Trimester,” “Second Trimester” and “Third Trimester.” Various people come and go in the movie, but Anna and Matt remain the central focus.
As Matt and Anna get to know each other, so too does the audience. Matt finds out early on in their relationship that Anna gave birth to a child (she won’t say what gender) when she was was 17 or 18 years old. Anna dropped out of high school because of the pregnancy, and she gave the child up for adoption. It was a closed adoption, so she has no idea where the child is now or who adopted the child. And she doesn’t want to know.
Anna doesn’t want to know the gender of the child she’s carrying for Matt. And when her pregnancy starts to show, she also doesn’t want to tell people why she got pregnant and who the father is. Why all the secrecy?
It becomes obvious that Anna has unresolved issues about her first pregnancy because of how it affected her relationship with the rest of her family, which includes her parents and her sister, who are not seen in the movie. It’s inferred that her family members live in an unnamed U.S. state that’s far away from California. In her interview with Matt, Anna said that her parents are religious, so viewers can easily guess how Anna’s parents reacted to Anna being an unwed pregnant teenager.
Anna eventually reveals to Matt that her parents not only disapproved of her teen pregnancy but they also angrily disagreed with her decision to give the child up for adoption. Based on some other things that Anna says about her family, it seems as if her parents thought it would have been better for Anna or someone in their family to raise the child. Later in the movie, Anna gets a call from her mother that leads Anna to make a decision that Anna didn’t expect to make.
Matt incorrectly assumes that Anna is pro-life because she didn’t have an abortion for her teen pregnancy, but Anna tells him that she’s actually pro-choice. There are several instances where Matt goes out of his way to try to say “politically correct” things to make Anna feel more at ease (for example, he announces in a pregnancy meditation group that they’re both feminists), but many times he ends up saying something that makes things more awkward.
Anna says she eventually got her GED and a college associate’s degree, but one of the reasons why she wants the surrogacy fee money (the movie shows she got paid $15,000) is because she wants to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hospitality. She found a university in Vermont that will allow her to get these degrees on an accelerated basis. As for her love life, Anna’s most recent relationship was with a guy named Jason, and he broke up with her for reasons that aren’t revealed.
Unlike Anna, Matt is close to his family. His parents Marty (played by Fred Melamed) and Adele (played by Nora Dunn) got divorced and are now remarried to other people. Matt’s younger brother Jacob (played by Timm Sharp) and Jacob’s wife Liz (played by Bianca Lopez) have two daughters together under the age of 3. They all live in the San Francisco area, so they get to see each other on a regular basis.
Marty, Jacob and Liz are happy for Matt and his impending fatherhood, while Adele is suspicious and judgmental about the surrogacy arrangement. Marty’s wife Dana (played by Terri Hoyos) and Adele’s husband Carson (played by Tucker Smallwood) are also supportive of Matt’s parenthood by surrogate pregnancy. Anna eventually meets all of these family members. As for Matt’s love life, Matt tells Anna that he was in a relationship for eight years with a woman he thought he might marry and start a family with, but the relationship didn’t work out.
Matt and Anna have their first major conflict in the first trimester, when Matt finds out that Anna had sex with a guy named Bryce (played by Evan Jonigkeit), whom Anna describes as probably a fling. Matt shows a very old-fashioned and ignorant side to him when he acts shocked and outraged that Anna could have sex while pregnant. When Matt meets Bryce for the first time, it’s after Bryce spent the night with Anna. Matt blurts out to Bryce and Anna: “Did you guys just fuck?”
It’s so rude and so socially clueless. Matt’s harsh reaction to Anna having a sex life while pregnant predictably leads to an argument. And that leads to a scene in an obstetrician’s office where Matt has to have it explained to him that it’s generally safe for a pregnant woman to have sex, unless she’s been told by a doctor that she can’t have sex for medical reasons. Matt is presumably well-educated as someone who works in the tech industry, but he’s woefully ignorant about a woman’s anatomy during pregnancy.
Matt tries to bring up a clause in the surrogacy contract that prohibits Anna from engaging in dangerous acts while pregnant, with Matt saying that sexual intercourse can fall under that clause. However, Anna and their obstetrician Jean (played with scene-stealing sarcasm by Sufe Bradshaw) shut Matt down with his extremely uptight reactions to the idea that Anna can’t have a sex life while pregnant. Although Matt’s reaction is over-the-top, it’s the movie’s way of pointing out how some people have sexist attitudes by believing pregnant women’s sexual needs are supposed to disappear during pregnancy.
“Together Together” mines some pregnancy rituals for some laughs and satire about people’s attitudes about gender roles in parenthood. Matt and Anna attend a pregnancy mediation class, where the so-called open-minded teacher (who tries to look like a New Age guru) is condescending and judgmental when she finds out that Anna is a single woman who is a surrogate. And when people find out that Matt and Anna aren’t a couple, Matt gets more credit and praise than Anna for being committed to going to these classes.
In their separate surrogacy support group sessions (Anna is in a group for for women, Matt is in a group for men), Matt is the only man in his group who is unmarried or without a partner/co-parent. He gets surprised reactions, but they’re not as insulting as some of the things that Anna experiences. There are straight and gay couples represented in the sessions for the support groups, meditation and childbirth preparation classes that Anna and Matt attend. As for how Anna and Matt are able to spend so much time attending all these classes and counseling sessions, it’s implied in the movie that Matt works from home, and Anna’s job at the coffee shop is part-time.
Anna experiences other casual forms of sexism, when she notices that people treat her in a more dismissive or judgmental manner when they find out that her pregnancy is a surrogate pregnancy. But she notices that when people find out that Matt is a single man who hired a surrogate, people react by saying it’s very progressive and “brave.” The message is clear with people who have this attitude: There’s still a stigma attached to being a pregnant woman who’s not married or without a partner, compared to being a pregnant woman who’s married or who has a partner.
Anna also has to experience the rudeness of over-enthusiastic people who touch her pregnant belly without permission. And then, by her third trimester, there are the people who impolitely comment on how “big” Anna is. It’s the movie’s way of showing that some people are insensitive to the fact that pregnant women already know they’ve gained weight and they don’t need it pointed out to them in a body-shaming way, even if the commenter didn’t intend to be offensive. And then there are people (such as Matt’s mother Adele) who say that Anna must be that big because the baby is probably a boy.
Meanwhile, the gender discrimination that Matt experiences isn’t as embarrassing. After people get over the shock that he hired a surrogate and he wants to be a single father, they generally think that what he’s doing is somehow groundbreaking. It helps that he lives in a liberal city such as San Francisco. “Together Together” would have been a very different (and possibly more interesting) movie if Anna and Matt lived in an area that wasn’t so open-minded and accepting of their surrogacy arrangement.
Compared to Anna, Matt doesn’t have as many challenges during this pregnancy. One of Matt’s biggest “problems” is that he can’t find any advice books on being a single father who hires a surrogate, because most books about being a single father have to do with being widowed, divorced or fighting for child custody. Matt goes all-out in preparing for his child, including buying a book that gives in-depth analysis of every conceivable color to paint a baby’s bedroom and how each color might psychologically affect the child. And, as expected, because he’s kind of an obsessive control freak, Matt wants to monitor and judge everything that Anna is eating and drinking while she’s pregnant.
It’s implied that because of the traumatic experience that Anna had with her teen pregnancy, she doesn’t want to know the gender of the child she’s carrying for Matt. Matt wants to know the gender before the baby is born. And so, he and Anna argue a little about it during an ultrasound appointment. Meanwhile, obstetrician Jean witnesses a lot of this bickering and tries not to say out loud what she’s thinking, but it’s written all over her face.
Eventually, Matt decides that if he found out the gender, it would be too hard for him to keep it a secret, so he goes along with Anna’s wish for him to not find out until the baby is born. Matt also promises that he won’t tell Anna the gender of the child after she gives birth. Matt will be the one to name the child after the baby is born.
But while Anna is pregnant, they both agree that they should give the child a gender-neutral name. There’s a comical segment where Anna and Matt go through a series of names. They disagree on and reject several names until they eventually decide to call the unborn child Lamp.
In addition to their respective surrogacy support groups, Anna and Matt get surrogacy counseling from a non-judgmental therapist named Madeline (played by Tig Notaro), who doesn’t do much but listen to Anna and Matt’s neurotic rambling. Anna also confides in a sassy barista co-worker named Jules (played by Julio Torres), who is in his early 20s, openly queer (he dates men and women), and is apparently Anna’s closest friend. Jules is one of the few people whom Anna told that her pregnancy is a surrogate pregnancy and that Matt is the biological father. Jules, who is very opinionated, warns Anna about the complications of getting emotionally involved with Matt, whom Jules eyes suspiciously when Matt visits the coffee shop.
Anna and Matt’s initial discomfort with each other evolves into a deeper understanding of each other. In their own separate ways, they experience prejudice and misunderstandings from other people about their unusual surrogacy situation. And how they navigate their relationship, while coming to terms with how this surrogate pregnancy will change them, makes this movie work so well.
But as Anna and Matt become friends, Anna feels conflicted and confused over how attached she should become to someone who will be raising a child whom she doesn’t want to know. And when she attends a baby shower that Matt has thrown for himself (the party was Anna’s idea), Anna gets an eye-opening experience on how she’s perceived by the people he’s closest to in his life. Instead of the party guests remembering Anna’s name, they call her “the surrogate.” While Matt has people congratulating him at the party, she’s often ignored.
“Together Together” could have been a very gimmicky movie, but it’s held together by witty dialogue and truthful satires. One of the movie’s main intended takeaways is how much women bear the biggest brunt of indignities when it comes to pregnancies. And even though Anna and Matt end up becoming friends, there’s still an unbalanced power dynamic between them because he’s paying her to have his child and paying all of her pregnancy expenses.
When they hang out together, Matt is the one who usually decides what they do (they end up watching every episode of the sitcom “Friends”) and he sometimes acts like a know-it-all. He’s shocked that Anna knew very little about “Friends” before she met him. It’s as if Matt can’t take into account that a lot of people don’t really watch TV and are unaware of all the characters in popular TV shows. And so, he insists that he and Anna will watch every episode of “Friends.”
Anna is also acutely aware of the age difference between herself and Matt, who doesn’t seem to think their nearly 20-year-age gap is that big of a deal. (It’s probably because Matt is emotionally immature in a lot of ways.) This leads to Anna going into a monologue about Woody Allen that has to be seen in the movie to be believed. People will either laugh and/or cringe at this monologue.
“Together Together” has some sharp observations of how well-intentioned men, even those who think that they’re “feminists,” can still have patriarchal and possessive attitudes over pregnant women’s bodies. For example, Matt (who thinks he’s a progressive liberal) was quick to try to use his surrogate contract with Anna as a legal way to stop Anna from having sex while she was pregnant. Although he ultimately failed to police Anna’s sex life, the fact that he wanted to doesn’t make it any less alarming.
Ultimately, “Together Together,” like the title suggests, is not about a battle of the sexes. It shows with a lot of amusing charm how people in unusual pregnancy situations can overcome fears and prejudices, or at least cope in the best way that they can. And if an unexpected friendship can come out if it, that’s an added bonus.
Bleecker Street released “Together Together” in U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is on May 11, 2021.