Review: ‘Together’ (2021), starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan

August 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan in “Together” (Photo by Peter Mountain/Bleecker Street)

“Together” (2021) 

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Culture Representation: Taking place from March 2020 to March 2021, in an unnamed city in the United Kingdom, the comedy/drama “Together” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple, who are opposites in many ways, confront issues in their love/hate relationship when they have to quarantine together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Culture Audience: “Together” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about love relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy in “Together” (Photo by Peter Mountain/Bleecker Street)

The comedy/drama “Together” is a very talkative relationship movie that could easily have been a stage play because the entire story takes place at one house. The movie’s appeal is largely dependent on the talent of co-stars James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan. They are two of the movie’s three cast members who speak. McAvoy and Horgan also have about 99% of the screen time and speaking lines in the movie. And much of it consists of conversations and monologues that are funny, rude, angry and sometimes poignant.

Fortunately, McAvoy and Horgan succeed in making their very flawed characters sizzle with a wide range of emotions that are realistic for a troubled couple navigating their way through a quarantine together during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Together” (directed by Stephen Daldry and written Dennis Kelly) takes place from March 24, 2020, to March 22, 2021, in an unnamed city in the United Kingdom. By the end of the movie, the unnamed, unmarried couple portrayed by McAvoy and Horgan have a reckoning about where their relationship is headed, and they decide if they are going to stay together or not.

The couple at the center of the story are only identified as He and She in the film’s credits. They are both opposites in many ways. He is a businessman who used to be a high-ranking corporate executive and has started his own tech consulting business that is failing when this story begins. He’s politically conservative and hates the idea of government welfare because he thinks people on welfare are lazy. He has a very arrogant and condescending view of people who are working-class and poor, even though he comes from a working-class background in Scotland.

She’s from England and politically liberal—someone whom a conservative would call a “bleeding heart” liberal, although she likes to think of herself as a moderate liberal. She comes from an upper-middle-class background (her late father was a dentist), and she believes that the government and society in general should do more to help poor and disenfranchised people. It’s why she works as a refugee coordinator.

This often-bickering couple has a son together named Arthur, nicknamed Artie (played by Samuel Logan), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. Artie stays in the background for most of the movie. Artie also doesn’t speak until the last third of the film, when the quarantine lockdown has lifted and the COVID-19 vaccination has become available. This family trio lives in a cluttered, upper-middle-class two-story house.

There are two scenes where Artie is briefly shown on a backyard trampoline. The movie quickly shows only person outside of the household: a boy who’s around the same age as Artie and who lives next door. This unnamed boy doesn’t speak in the movie, but he also has a backyard trampoline that he’s seen jumping on at the same time as Artie. Viewers will get the impression that even without a quarantine, Artie is a loner anyway because he and his parents never mention Artie not being able to hang out with any friends during the lockdown.

The beginning of “Together” doesn’t waste time in showing the volatile relationship between these on-again/off-again lovers. It’s the first day of the quarantine lockdown, and they’ve just come back from stocking up on food from a grocery store, where a lot of panic buying was going on. This argumentative couple—who talk to the camera, as if they’re filming video diaries for an audience—can’t even agree on the name their son should be called. He thinks their son should be called Artie, while she prefers Arthur.

He says to the camera, “The only thing keeping us together is our child.” He then says to her about how during quarantine, he’ll miss the routine of leaving the house. “Just saying goodbye to you [to go to work] is the best part of my day!” She snaps back and says to the camera, “Just being in the same room as him is like a sadness and a soul stink both mixed together.”

The insults don’t end there. He says to her, “I hate your face.” She replies, “When I look at you, I get the exact same feeling as my dead dad’s cancer.” They both trade these types of verbal barbs while looking at each other or acting as if the other person isn’t there and talking directly to the camera.

How did these two miserable people end up together? They tell their “love story” in bits and pieces, during their conversations and monologues. Like many romances that turn sour, things started out wonderfully. They had an “opposites attract” relationship where their differences seemed charming to each other in the beginning. And they definitely fell in love.

However, even early on in their relationship, they disagreed and argued over fundamental things. A turning point in their courtship happened when a hipster friend of theirs named Nathan convinced the couple to go on a New Age type of rustic retreat with Nathan and some other people. During this retreat, the participants were required to get up early one morning to harvest mushrooms.

The male partner in the couple got food poisoning from eating the mushrooms. His food poisoning was so severe that he needed hospital treatment. And describing it all these years later, he says it felt like a near-death experience. Because of this health scare, the couple decided to have a child together.

Artie or Arthur is a fairly quiet child who can occasionally be seen eavesdropping on some of his parents’ arguments. They seem to be aware that he listens in on them talking because they sometimes lower their voice when they say things they don’t want their son to hear. And the man in the couple thinks that Artie is a little strange, but when he talks about it with his partner, this father often over-compensates by raising his voice to praise Artie in case the child can hear nearby.

In the beginning of the movie, the man tells his partner about a recent trip to a grocery store, where he wanted to buy aubergines to cook for their son. He saw a grocery store employee with a large stock of aubergines and asked her if any were available to buy. She says no, because another employee who recently got infected with COVID-19 could have handled this produce, and the store is investigating to find out if the aubergines would be safe to sell.

The man in the relationship practically brags with glee about how he verbally abused this grocery store employee when she declined to take £1,000 that he offered to get her to give him one of the aubergines. He says that he called this employee a “big-nosed prick” and a “fucking loser.” And to further demean her, he also said: “This is the reason why you’re stuck in this shitty job, and I’ve got an E-Class [Mercedes] Benz waiting for me outside!” He also said that he dropped all of his groceries on the floor and then walked out.

The man’s partner is so horrified and disgusted by hearing this story that she walks away. It’s meant to demonstrate how callous and condescending he can be. But over time, things happen during the pandemic that teach him some humility and appreciation for people and things that he took for granted. The man in this relationship has a more transformative arc than the woman during the pandemic lockdown.

Throughout this one-year period that’s depicted in “Together,” the couple experiences more ups and downs, including news that a few people they know have been infected with COVID-19. They argue some more, make up, and then argue again. It seems to be a pattern in their relationship that gives them a lot of stress, but it’s something that they’re oddly comfortable with because that’s all they know in how to communicate with each other.

Artie has only one grandparent: his mother’s widowed mother. The parents of Artie’s father are deceased. Artie is very close to his maternal grandmother, who needs nursing care and cannot visit during the quarantine lockdown. Artie’s mother is very worried about what will happen to her mother, who has another daughter who also lives in the United Kingdom. A decision is made on whether or not the grandmother should continue to receive care at home or should be moved to a nursing care facility.

Although none of this couple’s relatives is seen in the movie, the types of relationships that Artie’s mother has with her sister and mother have a deep emotional effect on her. It’s not stated if the man in the relationship has any living relatives. This movie’s lack of a family background for the male protagonsist is a minor screenplay flaw that can easily be forgiven because his character’s personality is so vivid (as unlikable as he can be) and very realistic to how a lot of insecure people behave.

The woman in the relationship isn’t a saint either, since she and her partner say some awful, hateful things to each other. Her main personality flaw is that she doesn’t like to show vulnerabilities and puts up a front that she can handle anything at any time. And that “stiff upper lip” façade might come crashing down on her.

One of the criticisms that “Together” might get is how the couple’s son is mostly in the background during this story of a family that’s supposed to be in lockdown together. The parents do seem self-absorbed, but they are not neglectful, since there are scenes where they interact lovingly with their son. However, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers didn’t want Artie/Arthur to say or do much in this story, because the movie’s focus is on how these squabbling parents are dealing with their own issues that have nothing to do with their son.

Because these two adult characters are front and center for the entire movie, viewer enjoyment of “Together” will be affected by how much someone is willing to spend 92 minutes going on a talkative roller coaster ride of a couple whose relationship always seems on the verge of collapse. Fortunately, Kelly’s witty screenplay gives McAvoy and Horgan an ideal platform to showcase their considerable acting chops. It’s a ride that is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes amusing, but it’s definitely not boring.

Bleecker Street released “Together” in select U.S. cinemas on August 27, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. BBC iPlayer premiered the movie in the United Kingdom on June 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,’ starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland and Scotland, the musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Icelandic male/female pop-music duo called Fire Saga aspire to on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but they come up against naysayers in their home country as well as competitors from other countries.

Culture Audience: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, as well as to people who like good-natured satires of fame seekers and hokey TV talent contests.

Dan Stevens in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is an entertaining parody of the famous annual Eurovision Song Contest that feels retro and contemporary at the same time. The contest, which began in 1956 and is televised in numerous countries, has singers (usually performing pop music) competing from different countries around the world, as a sort of an Olympics for aspiring music stars. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams portray the earnest but naïve Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a musical duo from Iceland who perform under the stage name Fire Saga. Ferrell, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Andrew Steele, is one of the producers of this comedy. And it’s one of Ferrell’s best movies in years.

Although “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (directed by David Dobkin) takes place in the present day, a lot of the musical sensibilities and costumes seem to be stuck in a previous decade, especially the 1980s or 1990s. The movie’s running joke, although not explicitly stated, is that certain parts of Europe are “behind the times” in pop music, because these countries rarely produce groundbreaking pop superstars on a worldwide level. Therefore, the performers who represent these countries at Eurovision are often ridiculed by Eurovision haters for looking and sounding outdated.

The trailer for “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” already shows that Fire Saga made it to the contest. Therefore, the first third of this 123-minute movie has no suspense, since it’s all about the obstacles that Fire Saga encounters in the quest to make it to Eurovision. Iceland has never had a Eurovision winner, so that immediately makes Fire Saga the ultimate underdog act.

The movie begins in Húsavík, Iceland, on April 6, 1974, when a pre-teen Lars (played by Alfie Melia), his stern widower father Erick (played by Pierce Brosnan) and other members of the family are watching Eurovision in the living room. The Swedish pop group ABBA is performing “Waterloo,” and Lars is transfixed. (ABBA won Eurovision that year and has remained Eurovision’s most famous winning act.)

As Lars dances along to ABBA performing on TV, he announces to his family that someday, he’s going to be a contestant on Eurovision. Several people scoff at the idea, including Erick, who says he’d rather be dead than to have his son sing and dance on Eurovision. Well, you know what that means.

About 45 years later, Lars is still living with his father, who makes a living as a fisherman, while Lars has a job giving parking tickets. Lars and his musical partner Sigrit (who is a music teacher) are longtime friends. They are singers and multi-instrumentalists, but they’ve been floundering in the dead-end local music scene. Fire Saga’s music “career” consists of rehearsing in the basement of Erick’s house and performing at a small local bar.

A running joke in the movie is that the patrons of this bar don’t want to hear any Fire Saga original songs (such as the trash-tastic “Volcano Man”) and would rather hear Fire Saga perform a very childish, nonsensical tune called “Jaja Ding Dong.” The audience is so fanatical about “Jaja Ding Dong” that they will often demand that Fire Saga perform it more than once in a single set. Is it any wonder that Lars and Sigrit think Eurovision will be their ticket out of this backwards town?

Erick isn’t the only one who thinks Lars is a loser and that it’s a delusional lost cause for Fire Saga to be on Eurovision. Sigrit’s single mother Helka (played by Elin Petersdottir) vehemently disapproves of Sigrit chasing this dream and tells Sigrit that she’s wasting her time with Lars. Although it’s not shown in the movie, it’s mentioned that Sigrit used to be mute as a child, until she met Lars and he helped her find her voice through music. And Lars and Sigrit have been friends ever since.

But now that they’re adults, Sigrit wants to be more than friends with Lars, because she’s secretly in love with him. Lars has the maturity level of a teenager (like most characters Farrell tends to play), so Lars is completely oblivious to Sigrit’s true feelings for him. As if to make the point that Lars and Sigrit don’t exude sexual chemistry with each other, throughout the movie, people who meet Lars and Sigrit for the first time mistakenly assume that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister. Later in the story, when Sigrit and Lars almost kiss romantically, he stops it from happening because he says they can’t ruin their work relationship with a romance, and they have to stay focused on winning Eurovision.

But getting to Eurovision won’t be so easy. First, Fire Saga has to win the Icelandic Song Contest. Neils Brongus (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the president of Icelandic Public Television, leads a committee in charge of deciding who will be contestants in the Icelandic Song Contest. And he already has a favorite to win: Katiana Lindsdottir (played by Demi Lovato), from Kefalvik, a ready-made pop star with a powerful singing voice.

Neils tells his assembled team after watching Katiana’s audition video: “Without being dramatic, I think it might be the best audition tape we ever had in the history of the Icelandic Song Contest.”  (In the movie, Lovato sings the original song “In the Mirror.”) Compared to Katiana, Fire Saga looks like a bad joke.

Meanwhile, Victor Karlsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Central Bank of Iceland, is worried about a contestant from Iceland winning Eurovision, which has a tradition of the winning contestant’s country hosting the contest in the following year. Victor fears that Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to Iceland for Eurovision. And  he thinks that all those visitors during a short period of time could bankrupt Iceland.

Therefore, Victor is not enthusiastic about Katiana or anyone from Iceland winning Eurovision. When Victor expresses his concerns to Neils and the team at Icelandic Public Television, the rest of the group immediately shoots down Victor’s pessimistic prediction, because they think Eurovision coming to Iceland would be great for the Icelandic economy.

Lars’ dream of wining Eurovision becomes even more desperate when he finds himself homeless. His father Erick is having serious financial problems and has a choice to sell his house or sell his boat. Since Erick needs his boat for his fisherman income, he decides to sell the house.

Meanwhile, Sigrit has a quirk that Lars finds a little irritating: She believes in elves and thinks that elves can grant wishes. A recurring joke in the movie is that she visits a group of tiny houses built for elves and offers food and other gifts to the unseen creatures, as a way to entice them to grant her wishes. Two of her biggest wishes are to win Eurovision and to get together with Lars and start a family with him.

Through a series of unpredictable events, Fire Saga ends up representing Iceland at Eurovision, which is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. How the usually hapless Fire Saga got to Eurovision wasn’t necessarily because Fire Saga was voted the best act, so Iceland’s support is lukewarm at best. Still, Iceland has given Fire Saga enough support that the country has hired a creative team to help Fire Saga win with Fire Saga’s chosen song “Double Trouble.”

The artistic director of this creative team is the very fussy and flamboyant Kevin Swain (played by Jamie Demetriou, in a scene-stealing performance), who sometimes clashes with the creative vision that Lars and Sigrit have for Fire Saga. During Eurovision rehearsals, Lars and Sirgit also meet another flamboyant character: Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens), a singer who flaunts his wealth and gives the impression that he will sleep with anyone to get them to do what he wants. Alexander’s Eurovision song is called “Lion of Love,” and his bombastic performance of the song includes a homoerotic choreography with male backup dancers wearing skintight gold lamé pants.

Alexander (whose frosted 1980s hairdo is reminiscent of George Michael in his Wham! days) immediately sets his sights on Sigrit to target as a sexual conquest. Meanwhile, Lars attracts the amorous attention of Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (played by Melissanthi Mahut), a singer who’s like a cross between Ariana Grande and Cher. Not surprisingly, some jealousy situations ensue.

In between all of the backstage drama and hilariously tacky performances, the movie has a standout musical ensemble number that takes place at a contestant party thrown by Alexander. In this scene, numerous contestants (including Lars, Sigrit, Alexander and Mita) do an extravagant medley of Cher’s “Believe,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Savan Kotecha, the musical director for this movie, assembled the team that wrote the film’s original songs that were deliberately kitschy. His background in writing and producing hits for real-life pop stars serves this movie very well. Among the hits that Kotecha co-written and co-produced include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Lovato’s “Confident.” The musical score by Atli Örvarsson complements the pop tunes without being overbearing.

The movie’s Eurovision performance scenes, which includes footage from real Eurovision arena shows, are among the comedic highlights of the film. Just when you think an act couldn’t get campier or more pompous, another one comes along to surpass it. Graham Norton (portraying himself) adds an element of satirical realism with his cameo as the sardonic TV commentator for Eurovision.

For “Eurovision Song Contest,” McAdams and Ferrell have reunited with their “Wedding Crashers” director Dobkin, whose previous experience as a music-video director is an asset for this musical movie. As for the singing in the movie, Lovato and Mahut are professional singers in real life, so they did their own vocals. Adams’ vocals were either her own or a combination of McAdams and those of Swedish singer Molly Sandé. Alexander’s operatic singing vocals were provided by Erik Mjönes.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has plenty of lowbrow jokes that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. For example, there are several penis jokes and jokes about naked men in the movie. The jokes are crude but not offensive. In one scene, Lars comments: “I think of my penis like a Volvo—solid, sturdy, dependable, but not going to turn any heads.” Comedy is all about delivery, and Ferrell delivers the line in such a good natured, self-deprecating way, that it will make people laugh.

The movie doesn’t just poke fun at tacky aspiring pop stars from Europe. Americans are also the butt of many jokes in the film. During the course of the movie, Lars and Sigrit keep encountering the same group of college-age American tourists. Lars makes it known that he dislikes Americans, by taunting the tourists with the worst “ugly American” stereotypes. His insults aren’t too far off from how many non-Americans perceive Americans.

Make no mistake: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is by no means an Oscar-worthy movie. (Ferrell has never starred in that type of movie anyway.) But it is a cut above some of the stinkers that Ferrell has been headlining in recent years. At its heart, “Eurovision Song Contest” has a sentimentality to it that just might win people over in the way that Fire Saga earnestly tries to charm audiences—not by being the most talented but by being their unapologetically corny selves.

Netflix premiered “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on June 26, 2020.