“Together Together” sounds like a really bad idea on paper, and for the first half-hour or so, it’s a really bad idea on screen. Yet a funny thing happens to this surrogate-pregnancy romantic comedy (I told you it was a bad idea) as it bumps along: It develops curious and unexpected pockets of feeling. As a bonus, you may come away with the curious feeling that a star, rather than a baby, is being born. The movie arrives in theaters this week and on demand May 11.
Ed Helms comes off a career of playing reliable, earnest stick-in-the-muds in “The Hangover” movies and on “The Office” to play a reliable, over-earnest stick-in-the-mud who badly wants to be a father, despite being in his 40s and single. The film opens with him interviewing the woman who will carry the fertilized donor egg to term: Anna (Patti Harrison), a diffident coffee-shop employee who could use the money. It’s not clear why Matt chooses her over other, presumably less flaky contenders, but then there wouldn’t be a movie.
The “first trimester” first act of “Together Together” is an occasion for more than the occasional cringe, as Matt — an uptight neatnik of an app designer — hovers near and next to Anna, offering anxious commentary on her dietary and relationship choices. She puts up a few mild squawks about personal space and borders but not nearly as many as the audience may be hearing in their heads.
Matt settles down after a bit and so does “Together Together,” and eventually you realize it’s posing an interesting question: How does one normalize a situation that is defiantly non-normal, even more so in social terms than biological? To complicate matters, both characters are solitary souls, Matt by nature — he has a hot-selling product, Loner, that Anna calls “the saddest app I’ve ever seen” — and Anna by screenwriter fiat. (She’s alienated from her family and has no friends aside from an oddball co-worker played by Julio Torres.) Her carrying his child brings them closer in ways they each nervously welcome.
The writer-director is Nikole Beckwith, a Newburyport native who in 2015 bootstrapped her way into Sundance with “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” a dark drama starring Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon. (Ironically, that film fell apart in the last third.) “Together Together” is breezier in tone while showcasing a surer sense of how people can fumble toward and away from each other with all the best intentions. Beckwith brings on stand-up comedian Tig Notaro as a surrogacy therapist, Nora Dunn and Fred Melamed as Matt’s noodgy parents, Rosalind Chao as an OB-GYN, and Sufe Bradshaw as a deadpan and very funny medical technician. But the film’s curiosity toward the central couple eventually becomes imbued with a tenderness that makes all the others fade away.
Much of this is due to Helms, who’s attentive to Matt’s annoying and supportive sides alike; once Matt stops hearing the anxiety clanging around in his brain, he’s a very good listener. But “Together Together” may be most notable as a showcase for Harrison, a comedian and “Tonight Show” correspondent whose warily intelligent performance here is, in its own way, groundbreaking. The actress gives Anna a witty yet moving emotional keel that keeps the movie from tipping over into pathos or gluey farce, and she remains the story’s reality principle, both in terms of any possible romance with a man 20 years her senior and Anna’s involvement in the life of a child that is not and never will be her own. Harrison gives the character more life than the screenplay does, yet both she and Beckwith seem to collaborate on the film’s final image, which — like much of this odd, daring, and surprisingly resonant film — lands with a light touch upon hard matters.
Written and directed by Nicole Beckwith. Starring Ed Helms, Patti Harrison. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, suburbs. 95 minutes. R (sexual references and language)