I’ve been a huge fan of Natalie Morales for a very, very long time. In fact, I just got the Middleman DVD box set for Christmas and am doling out episodes to myself at a slow rewatch pace like a post-holiday Advent calendar, after my last rewatch of gray market .avi files that are still watermarked with the ABC Family branding. I heard about the then-unfilmed Plan B, Morales’s directorial debut, sometime back and then don’t remember ever hearing anything else about it until it premiered on Hulu. There’s a distinct style to her comedic delivery and timing that I have always loved, and it’s present in her other non-Wendy Watson roles with which we have been graced over the years; it’s also present here, in an esoteric spiritual way and in the way that her voice comes through so clearly in the cadence of her characters’ dialogue.
Lupe (Victoria Moroles) and Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) are best friends. Both have single parents: Sunny is an only child being raised by her mother, Rosie (Jolly Abraham), a driven real estate agent with high expectations for Sunny’s academic performance; Lupe has younger brothers, and her mother passed away some time ago, pushing her minister father (Jacob Vargas) towards overprotection, against which she bristles. Sunny’s crushing on Hunter (Michael Provost), a sensitive boy whose signature pairing of cardigan and P.E. uniform revs her engine, and she’s egged on by the ostensibly more sexually experienced Lupe. When Rosie leaves for an out-of-state realty conference, Lupe convinces Sunny to throw a house party in order to spend time with Hunter, but when he leaves with another girl, Sunny ends up having (brief and unsatisfying) sex with a different classmate, the zealously Christian dweeb Kyle (Mason Cook).
The next morning, she realizes that despite her best efforts to use protection, she may be amongst the minute percentage for whom condoms are ineffective. This kicks off a series of events in which the girls try to obtain the titular pharmaceutical, during the course of which they run afoul of a pharmacist (Jay Chandrasekhar) who invokes the state’s laws allowing for those of his profession to withhold medication based on “moral” objections, a gas station attendant (Edi Patterson, of The Righteous Gemstones) with her own issues, and a supposedly teenaged drug dealer (the 31-year-old Moses Storm) whose apparent age is the result of never drinking water. En route to the closest Planned Parenthood, a several-hour car ride that turns into an overnight coming-of-age road comedy, Sunny has an unexpected encounter with Hunter, and Lupe finally meets her oft-mentioned off screen love interest, Logan, for the first time in person; both we and Sunny learn that Logan (Myha’la Herrold) is actually a woman. With the ticking clock to get both the Plan B pill before it starts to lose its efficacy, and for the girls to get home before Sunny’s mom gets back from her conference, one never forgets that stakes, regardless of how many peals of laughter are experienced between delays.
There’s a great scene early on in which we get a one-scene performance from Rachel Dratch as Ms. Flaucher, the characters’ sex ed teacher. Just like I did, they’re getting an abstinence-only curriculum in which premarital sex is given an elaborate metaphor. You know the one; in his late-2019 stand-up special, Jaboukie Young-White talked about his Catholic upbringing in which the sinfulness of the Marital Act outside of the Marriage Bed was demonstrated by having everyone spit in a cup and challenging the last person to drink it. My school also had the one with the Scotch tape, in which once you put it on someone’s shirt, then someone else’s, then a third person’s, the tape lost adhesiveness, to show how we could never really properly bond to our future spouses if we allowed ourselves to be sullied by physical encounters in which loose threads were exchanged, if you follow. The September 2019 installment of Into the Dark, entitled Pure, took place at a purity retreat; during the scene in which the event’s spiritual leader asked for a piece of gum and started chewing it, I told my then-roommate that this was about to become a metaphor for how “gross” and “used” people were, and he couldn’t believe that this prediction came true. At least I am too old to have been subjected to Christian trap music, which plays a role here in Plan B.
On the VHS tape (ha!) shown to Lupe and Sunny’s class, a woman’s virginity (and it’s specifically a woman’s in this case, which is discussed) is presented as a much-abused car, which her husband refuses to ride in. There’s something essential about comedy that requires it to be knowing, and that’s what elevates Plan B. It’s not just funny, it’s funny in a very intimate way, which matches the subject matter, appropriately interspersed with emotional reminders of the potency of teenage emotion. Sometimes, no matter how adult you think you are and attempt to take care of your problems, you’re still a child and you need an adult, and it’s ok to acknowledge that. That emotional honesty plays out in its demonstration of young love, and how it can be sweet and still a little embarrassing. And it does it all with humor that verges-upon-but-does-not-quite-become gross-out comedy, vignetted character portraits of outlandish but somehow instantly familiar personalities, and the warmth of basking in the effortless conversational volley between two best friends who know each other better than anyone else in the world. There are a few missteps; I personally can’t stand a late-film friendship-threatening argument, and although this one is blissfully short and quickly reversed, that really underscores how unnecessary it is. But I’m not here to get bogged down in those details, and neither should you be. This one’s a lot of fun.
There was a point sometime in the past decade—at least as early as 2014’s Sharknado 2: The Second One—where I completely lost my appetite for ironic “bad”-on-purpose schlock. Even retro broadcasts of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 have lost their luster for me, as I often find myself wishing I was just watching the B-movies being mocked without all the Gen-X sarcasm spoiling the mood. Based on its title, its blatant Ed Wood homages, and its $10 budget, I was worried that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same would be the exact kind of lazy B-movie throwback that I’ve lost my appetite for in recent years. I was wrong. It’s incredibly funny & heartwarming, joining the ranks of the few rare examples of digital-era retro schlock that’s genuinely entertaining as the genre relics it’s parodying:Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, B.C. Butcher, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, etc. Its cheap digital sheen & buzzing room tones almost scared me away in the very first scene, but by the end I was wishing it was a pilot for a What We Do in the Shadows-style sitcom instead of a standalone film.
The titular lovelorn Lesbian Space Aliens are basically a rehash of The Coneheads, complete with bald caps and robotic vocal inflections. They’ve been exiled to Earth from planet Zots because their “big emotions” are eroding their homeworld’s ozone layer. The plan is for the trio of romantic misfits to enter the dating pool in NYC, where they’re sure to have their hearts broken and return to Zots emotionally numb. While one of the Zotsians is a shameless flirt seeking “hot alien-on-Earthling action,” the other two are just painfully lonely. Their romantic mishaps on the NYC singles scene are mostly an absurd excuse to make tragicomic observations about the quirks of lesbian dating – the kinds of anxious “Are we being friendly or are we flirting?” observations that still routinely make the rounds on Twitter. Every character in their orbit is oddly loveable in their downtrodden, softspoken misery – right down to the self-deprecating G-men who’re assigned to uncover their UFO launching site. And when one alien does make a genuine romantic connection, it’s more satisfying than any mainstream romcom storyline Hollywood has produced in decades.
I’m not surprised to learn that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same originated as a queer-culture stage play in the early 90s, nearly two decades before its movie adaptation. Its writing & performances are much better defined than most backyard digi movies on its production level, and its retro-schlock patina is more of a launching pad for its humor than it is the entire joke. The film was met with high praise when it premiered at Sundance & Out Fest in the early 2010s but hasn’t had much of a cultural impact in the decade since. Anecdotally, it appears to have a low number of viewers but a high satisfaction rate, and director Madeleine Olnek at least went on to helm the more robust production Wild Nights with Emily (with Susan Ziegler, the actor who plays the codependent lesbian space alien Zoinx, in tow). I totally get audiences’ general suspicion of low-budget, “bad”-on-purpose B-movie parodies like this, but it’s one of the good ones – meaning it’s one that has a sincere heart beating in its chest, just beneath its irony-coated novelty skeleton.
Swampflix’s collective pick for the best movie of 2020 was an absurdist horror comedy about a killer deerskin jacket. Deerskinfelt like a career high for notorious French prankster Quentin Dupieux, especially in its sharp self-satirical humor about the macho narcissism of filmmaking as an artform. The follow-up to that violently silly triumph finds Dupieux backsliding into his more typical comedies about Nothing. Dupieux’s calling-card feature Rubber—the one about the killer, telekinetic car tire—announced him as an absurdist whose humor was rooted in the total absence of reason or purpose, one of the cruelest jokes of life. Mandibles fits snugly in that “no reason” comedy paradigm, the exact thing Dupieux is known to excel at. It’s only a disappointment in that Deerskin felt like a turn signal for a new direction in his career. On its own terms, it’s a total hoot.
In Mandibles, two bumbling criminals adopt & corrupt a gigantic housefly so it can join them in acts of petty theft. That’s it. The entire film is about two dumb buds being dumb buds who now have a weird pet. One is a beach bum; the other works eventless shifts at his parents’ highway gas station. The unexpected discovery of the housefly seems like a free ticket out of the lifelong buddies’ lifelong rut, but the resulting journey essentially amounts to a couple sleepovers & pool parties. They’re two overgrown man-children who inevitably fuck up everything they touch, recalling the adorable doofuses of mainstream Farrelly Brothers comedies of yesteryear. That retro humor is underlined in the film’s 1990s set design & costuming, which includes an overload of pink denim, cassette tapes, and Lisa Frank unicorn imagery. The only stray element that elevates the film above its Dumb and Dumberest surface charms is Dominique – their adopted mutant fly.
Quentin Dupieux totally gets away with reverting to autopilot for this “no reason” comedy, solely on the virtue of its jokes being very funny. I laughed a lot, I was surprised by every new get-rich-goofily scheme, and it was all over in less than 80 minutes. It’s hard to complain about that. It’s also hard to dismiss the novelty that Dominique brings to screen, rendered in a combination of CGI & traditional puppetry. I can’t claim I’ve never seen anything like her before, at least not after the giant flea vignette in 2016’s Tale of Tales. Still, every inane buzzing sound & insectoid head tilt Dominique delivers as the unlikely straight-man in the central comedy trio earns its laughs. I’d like to see a post-Deerskin Dupieux evolve into a more purposeful satirist with pointed things to say about life and art. His career-guiding thesis that life and art are ultimately meaningless rings true no matter how many times he repeats it, though, and this time he flavors that repetition with a cool-looking creature. That’s enough for me.
Of the three low-budget, low-profile indies I caught as virtual selections from this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, I did not expect my favorite would be the crossgender body-swap comedy. In Homebody, a gender-questioning 9-year-old boy discovers the meditative power to inhabit the body of his adult-woman babysitter and lives a day in her literal shoes. It’s a premise you’d expect to find in a 1980s sex comedy or in amateur online erotica, but here it’s handled with an innocence & sweetness that disarms its potential for moral or political disaster. Four years ago, Your Name.kicked open the door for more thoughtful, earnest gender-swap comedies to saunter through, and this is the first movie I’ve seen take advantage of that opening so far. It makes sense that delicate, modernized approach to the genre would come from a film festival acquisition and not a mainstream comedy, so let’s appreciate this sweet little movie before the inevitable live-action Hollywood remake of Your Name. spoils the mood.
Relative newcomer Colby Minifie puts in an A+ slapstick performance as the babysitter host-body in this possession story. Her client is a “Wells For Boys” type indoor kid who’s obsessed with his babysitter in a way that extends beyond the boundaries of a typical childhood crush into an intense jealousy & idolization. A few quick YouTube tutorials later, and he’s using “free spirit” transcendental meditation to inhabit her body, living a casual afternoon as an adult woman. Meanwhile, her consciousness is locked away in a Sunken Place limbo, slowly emerging to coach him through the trickier parts of living in her body before their proper places are righted. The scope of the picture is intimately small & mostly guarded from danger, but it doesn’t shy away from the squirmier curiosities children have when figuring out their relationships with their gender & their bodies. This particular kid indulges in crayon illustrations of his vore fantasies, carefully listens to adults piss from the outside of locked bathroom doors, and inadvertently invites his babysitter’s boyfriend to hook up while he’s piloting her body – all uncomfortable glimpses into his private psyche. For the most part, though, you just hope he has a nice afternoon exploring his feelings & identity on the other side of the gender divide, hopefully without ruining this sweet woman’s life in the process.
Homebody makes an impressive impact, considering its limited means. Director Joseph Sackett wrings a lot of visual vibrancy out of the crayon drawings & YouTube meditation tutorials that illustrate his protagonist’s gender journey. The movie also would not work at all if not for the talent of Minifie in her dual role as babysitter & client, clearly defined as two separate personae through the subtleties of her physical presence. It’s a movie that could very easily sour its own mood with a tonal or political misstep. It’s also one that could allow itself to be reductively summed up as “Freaky Friday meets My Life in Pink“. It’s got a lot more going on than that sales pitch would imply, though, especially as an intimate character study of a highly specific type of child that doesn’t tend to get a lot of screentime. Overall, it’s a wonderfully earnest exploration of childhood gender identity & general obsessiveness. It was also the highlight discovery of this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, at least for me.
When I was a teenager, I thought of Wes Anderson as a singular genius who made esoteric art films for in-the-know sophisticates. In my thirties, I now see him for what he actually is: a populist entertainer. The fussed-over dollhouse dioramas that typify Anderson’s visual style often distract from the qualities that make his films so popular & rewatchable: they’re funny. Laughing my way through his new high-style anthology comedy The French Dispatch felt like a rediscovery of the heart & humor that always shine in Anderson’s work but are often forgotten in retrospect as we discuss the consistency of his visual quirks. People often complain about how visually lazy mainstream comedies are, and here’s a film packed with Hollywood Celebrities where every scene is overloaded with gorgeous visuals and hilarious jokes. You can access it at practically any strip mall multiplex, right alongside the superhero & animated-animal sequels that otherwise crowd the marquee. No one else is making films exactly like Anderson’s, but everyone stands a chance of being entertained by them.
Judging by the wraparound segments of The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson appears to be self-aware of his usefulness in presenting Art Film aesthetics to wide audiences. The titular literary magazine is written by high-brow artsy types in the fictional town of Ennui, France, but is published as a newspaper insert in the farmlands of Kansas. The film is structured like a magazine layout, with light humorous moodsetters, standalone articles of in-depth culture writing, and a heartfelt obituary to cap it all off. The deceased is the magazine’s editor, whose death makes the entire film feel like a love letter to the lost art of editing at large, in the age of ad-driven clickbait production. Mostly, though, it’s all just a platform for rapidfire joke deliveries from talented celebrities dressed up in gorgeous costumes & sets. The anthology structure makes it play like a warmer, more frantic version of Roy Andersson’s sketch comedies, except the presence of household names like Frances McDormand & Benicio Del Toro means that more than a couple dozen people will actually watch it. And they’ll laugh. The French Dispatch may be more-of-the-same from Wes Anderson, but it really helped clarify how much I value him as a comedic filmmaker – even if he’d likely rather be referred to as a “humorist”.
Scrolling through this ensemble comedy’s massive cast list, it’s easy to distinguish which new additions to the Wes Anderson family feel at home among the returning players (i.e., Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin stand-in) vs. which ones were invited to the party merely because they’re celebrities (i.e., Liev Schreiber as the talk show host who interviews Wright). It’s much more difficult to single out which performer is the film’s MVP. Tilda Swinton is the funniest; Henry Winkler is the most surprising; Benicio del Toro is the most emotionally affecting. It’s likely, though, that the film’s true MVP is newcomer Timothée Chalamet as a scrawny political idealist who incites a vague yet violent student’s revolution on the streets of Ennuii with no clear political goal beyond the fun of youthful rebellion. It’s not that Chalamet is any stronger of a presence than this fellow castmates, but his Teen Beat heartthrob status outside the film is highly likely to draw some fresh blood into Anderson’s aging, increasingly jaded audience. The general reaction to The French Dispatch indicates that adult audiences who’ve been watching Wes Anderson since the 1990s are tiring of his schtick. Meanwhile, teenage girls hoping to get a peek at their favorite shirtless twink are perfect candidates for newfound, lifelong Anderson devotion. He worked best on me when I was that age, anyway.
The French Dispatch is dense & delightful enough that I’m already excited to watch it again, which is exactly how I felt when I first watched titles like Rushmore & The Life Aquatic in my teens. It might be my favorite of his film since The Royal Tenenbaums, or at least it feels like a perfect encapsulation of everything he’s been playing with since then. There’s a high likelihood that I walked out of Moonrise Kingdom & The Grand Budapest Hotel with this same renewed enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve merely forgotten that immediate elation in the few years since. Regardless, I don’t know that I’ve ever so clearly seen him as one of America’s great comedic filmmakers the way I do now. His visual & verbal joke deliveries in this latest dispatch are incredibly sharp & consistently funny. Many scenes start as fussed-over dollhouse dioramas shot from a cold, clinical distance. Those neatly segmented spaces tend to fill with oddly endearing goofballs, though, and you can tell he’s having the most fun when he’s feeding them punchlines.
Our current Movie of the Month, 1987’s Hello Again, is a fluffy romantic comedy about an undead but unflappable Shelley Long, one that sidesteps all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery. Even after she’s resurrected from the dead, Long’s status as a medical phenomenon has less impact on the film’s tone & plot than her nature as a hopeless klutz among big-city sophisticates does. It’s a dynamic that allows her to go absurdly broad in fits of Mr. Bean-style physical comedy, often to the point where you forget there’s any supernatural shenanigans afoot in the first place. The film is less about her being undead than it is about her being adorably ungraceful.
What most surprised me about this fairly anonymous studio comedy is that there’s some shockingly substantial talent behind the camera. Director Frank Perry began his career as a New Hollywood troublemaker, filming excruciatingly dark, uncomfortable comedies about The Human Condition. Whereas Hello Again actively avoids the inherent darkness of its subject, earlier Perry films seemed to revel in the discomfort of their premises. So, I used this month’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to dig a little further into Perry’s back catalog to see just how dark those earlier films could get and if they had tangible connection to the mainstream studio comedies he was cranking out by the 1980s. Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see the darker side of its director.
The Swimmer (1968)
The most bizarre aspect of Hello Again is how matter-of-fact it plays the absurdity of Shelley Long’s return from the grave. She’s not a decaying corpse; she doesn’t have magical powers; she’s just there. That underplayed absurdism is something Perry had done before to much more sinister effect when he was still a New Hollywood buttonpusher (along with his then-wife Eleanor Perry, who wrote the majority of his early screenplays). In The Swimmer, Perry cast Burt Lancaster as an aging suburban playboy who, on a whim, decides to “swim home” by visiting a string of friends’ backyard pools across his wealthy neighborhood. It’s a boldly vapid premise that’s somehow molded into a low-key mindmelter of 1960s moral rot through an eerie, matter-of-fact sense of surrealism.
Like Hello Again, The Swimmer is more of a quirky character piece than it is concerned with the internal logic of its supernatural plot. Instead of only traveling by the “continuous” “river” of swimming pools he initially envisions over his morning cocktail, Lancaster spends a lot of runtime galloping alongside horses, leisurely walking through forests, and crossing highway traffic barefoot. He does often emerge from one borrowed swimming pool to the next, though, and along the way we dig deeper into the ugliness of his himbo playboy lifestyle. He starts the film as a masterful charmer, seducing the world (or at least the world’s wives and mistresses) with an infectious swinging-60s bravado. By the time he swims his last pool, we recognize him as a miserable piece of shit who doesn’t deserve to kiss the feet of the infinite wonderful women of his past who we meet along the way. The overall result is sinisterly ludicrous beefcake melodrama, presented in lurid Technicolor. Sirk could never, but Perry did.
Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)
Although it’s ostensibly a back-from-the-dead zom-com, the dramatic core of Hello Again is much less about the supernatural circumstances of Shelley Long’s second chance at life than it is about her transformation from a dowdy housewife to a fully realized, fully satisfied person. And it turns out one of Frank Perry’s earliest professional triumphs is a much darker prototype of that same basic story. Diary of a Mad Housewife is a woman-on-the-verge black comedy about an absurdly horrid marriage that drives a put-upon housewife to a steamy, but equally toxic affair. Her husband constantly negs her in an abusive way; her side-piece boyfriend also negs her, but in a kinky way. She emerges from the other end completely miserable, but at least finally having done something for herself.
Most of the humor in Diary of a Mad Housewife is wrung from just how obnoxiously awful the husband character is to his “beloved.” From the second she wakes up, he floods her with a constant stream of complaints about her body, her clothes, her hair, and her behavior. It’s basically an early draft of Mink Stole’s ranting complaints at the start of Desperate Living– hilariously unpleasant & cruel in its never-ending barrage. Like in Hello Again, the titular mad housewife (Carrie Snodgress) struggles to rub elbows with elite sophisticates at the stuffy society parties her husband wants to attend (not to mention the housekeeping struggle of throwing those large-scale parties to being with). This earlier draft of that tension is just much darker than anything Hello Again offers, including a stubborn refusal to offer its put-upon protagonist a happy ending. Other highlights include a hunky-hipster Frank Langella, the world’s most rotten children, and a chaotic pre-fame cameo from “The Alice Cooper Band”.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Maybe Diary of a Mad Housewife‘s proto-Desperate Living opening was not happenstance at all. The film very well may have been a direct influence on John Waters’s filmmaking style, as evidenced by Waters’s fawning commentary track on Perry’s most iconic film: the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest. I’ve owned my Mommie Dearest DVD for at least a decade, have watched it lots, and somehow didn’t notice until this month that it includes a full commentary track from Waters. He does a great job of quipping throughout it MST3k style while also genuinely attempting to revamp its reputation as a “so good it’s great” melodrama. More to the point, he recalls early in the runtime that a critic once attempted to insult him by saying he’s not “the underground Russ Meyer,” he’s “the underground Frank Perry.” Of course, Waters took that insult as a compliment, as well he should have. Frank Perry’s great.
I highly recommend watching Mommie Dearest with the commentary track flipped on, especially if you’re already seen it and want to spend some quality time with one of history’s greatest talkers. Waters has some great quips about how Perry frames Crawford as “a female female-impersonator role” & a Strait-Jacket style horror villain, but I mostly just appreciated the way he tries to reclaim the film as a genuine crowd-pleaser. Waters absolutely nails it when he explains, “There’s no better kind of movie than this kind of movie if you’re home on a Saturday afternoon with a slight hangover.” I’d also put Hello Again in that exact same category, even if its own campy humor is much more measured & straightforward.
A few months ago, a friend recommended the low-key Euro comedy The Man in the Hat to me as “stress relief/anti-anxiety medication.” One waitlisted library DVD loan later, I totally get what he meant. The Man in the Hat is a fluffy, distinctly French comedy of whimsies (despite its British director). It follows a mostly wordless man’s casual escape from mild-mannered gangsters, both sides traveling in teensy tiny Euro cars across the French countryside. There’s a vague threat of violence in that chase, and a hint of sadness in the affable protagonist’s desperate grip on a black & white portrait of his wife. Those motions towards conflict are only an excuse for a provincial road trip, though, so we can eavesdrop on the quirky characters, feral kittens, and communal parties that decorate rural France. It all amounts to an unrushed, calming amusement, interrupted only by snack breaks and an occasional folk tune.
The most obvious comparison point for The Man in the Hat‘s gentle, largely silent storytelling style is the equally French (“and fucking proud of it”) comedy of Jacques Tati, particularly the Monsieur Hulot series. In practice, it reminded me a lot of the low-key dark humor of Aki Kaurismaki, especially in its clash of twee whimsy with crime-world brutality and old-fashioned rock n’ roll cool. As calming & endearing as The Man in the Hat feels for most of its runtime, its central drama is hinged on some truly bleak motivators: a dead spouse, a botched suicide attempt, an accidental witness to a body being dumped into a city canal. In the Kaurismaki version of this story (in the tradition of The Man Without a PastorThe Other Side of Hope), there would be much sharper shocks of gang violence, character-quirk humor, and political commentary than what The Man in the Hat is interested in delivering. This French/British echo of the Finnish humorist’s work is too mild-mannered to attempt anything other than self-amused twee, but it does match Kaurismaki’s eye for low-key romance & communal joy in the harshest of circumstances – even ending at an outdoor concert that feels like a direct hat-tip to his work.
To underline its function as “anti-anxiety medication”, The Man in the Hat often looks like a TV commercial for anti-depressants (or maybe just antihistamines, depending on the set-piece). Most of the sun-dappled road trip through lightly breezy vistas is populated by cautiously optimistic archetypes learning to have fun again in open fields, European cafes, and spontaneous block parties. Occasionally, the mood will shift in a wistful music video interlude lit by red brake lights or sparsely placed candles, but we’re often back on the road seconds later, “walking on sunshine” on our road to recovery. This is by no means a flashy movie, nor a challenging one. It’s just nice. There are likely more effective “anti-anxiety medications” out there on the market, but none that would pair this safely with a glass of wine (much less any that you could access for free through your local public library).
The pre-packaged media narrative about what makes Together Together special is that it’s a mainstream comedy that cast a trans actress as a cisgender, pregnant woman. That’s true enough, but what really makes the film incredible is that the actress in question is Patti Harrison, who’s just about the last comedian on the planet you’d expect in a mainstream role of any kind. Harrison’s comedy is confrontational, absurd, and explosively funny. Together Together is none of those things. This is a very Sundancey comedy about two lonely people establishing an unlikely friendship in an intensely awkward scenario. Harrison is cast opposite Ed Helms as her co-lead – a bland, safe, everyman comedian whose defining quality is that you always kinda wish he was Jason Sudeikis instead. She’s asked to be earnest, muted, and vulnerably awkward, and she does so ably . . . but that’s not what you think of as Her Thing. This is not at all the movie you’d expect from a comedian who says things like, “[I] feel very caged by [a lot of well-meaning social media liberals] who claim to be pro-my-autonomy. You’re pro-my-autonomy until it comes to my work, and then you can’t accept the fact that I love to joke about fucking dogs.” It’s extremely cool to see her land such a high-profile gig—complete with promotional interviews on NPR (home base for well-meaning social media liberals) about the film’s cultural importance—but it’s also a little bit of a bummer that she couldn’t be more herself in that spotlight.
I don’t want to be too hard on Together Together. It’s cute. Twenty years ago, this soft-pedaled quirky comedy about an upper-middle age, upper-middle class tech bro (Helms) forming an unlikely bond with the twentysomething barista he’s paying to be his child’s surrogate mother (Harrison) almost certainly would’ve been a romcom, with the two leads falling for each other across generational and class divides. Instead, they establish a low-key platonic friendship, which is much trickier to navigate but a lot less icky. It’s mostly a film about boundaries. Their employer-surrogate relationship is contractually defined by legal & therapeutic boundaries that are set in ink & stone, but once they start finding comfort & pleasure in each other’s company, those lines are hopelessly blurred. They’re two deeply lonely people who very much need each other but don’t know how to express that need without violating the terms of their firmly established legal, financial dynamic. The movie quickly establishes this uneasy rapport in an opening interview where the barista is hired for the surrogate mother job, then it gently tracks their friendship’s rocky development across the pregnancy’s three trimester-chapters. It’s all very cute and charming and has no business being Rated R.
Even if another performer replaced Patti Harrison in the starring role, there’d still be something perverse about the way this movie assembles so many aggressively strange comedians for something so deliberately toothless. Jo Firestone, Anna Konkle, and Tig Notaro are very funny people, so why are they given so little room to make jokes? Julio Torres is the only comedian who’s fully set loose to be Funny here as Harrison’s spaced-out weirdo co-worker, while everyone else is mostly just asked to be awkwardly sweet. Still, it was nice to see so many talented performers in one spot. Hopefully it’ll be the kind of word-of-mouth charmer that’ll gradually make Patti Harrison a big enough name that she can star in a comedy molded closer to her own delightfully fucked up tastes. She deserves it. For now, this is decent enough as lazy-afternoon comfort viewing. It feels condescending to label a movie “cute” and “nice”, but there really no other words for what Together Together offers. I’m just a little confused why so many outrageously funny people had to be assembled to accomplish that.
Britnee: There are many comedies that play around with the morbid humor of characters coming back from the dead. We actually did an episode of The Swampflix Podcast a few months ago where we talked about My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), a great example of a film that makes that gruesome subject light and funny. While they can be hilarious, what My Boyfriend’s Back and similar films do that I’m not a huge fan of is attach their undead humor to traditional zombie lore (bodies starting to rot, hunger for human flesh, etc.). Thankfully, there is a funny movie about someone returning from the dead who is in great health and looks fabulous from start to end: Hello Again (1987). It also happens to be my second Movie of the Month selection that stars Shelley Long, the ultimate 80s funny lady.
Lucy (Shelley Long) is a clumsy housewife who’s married to her college sweetheart, Jason (Corbin Bernsen), a plastic surgeon rising through the ranks of high society in NYC. Lucy is constantly tripping over her own feet, spilling food on her light-colored clothing, and in one of the most memorable scenes, ripping her dress in two by stepping on the hem. She most certainly does not fit in with the snobby groups her husband rubs shoulders with. While visiting her occultist sister Zelda (Judith Ivey), Lucy chokes on a piece of a South Korean chicken ball and dies. Thankfully, Zelda comes across an ancient book in her shop in which she finds a spell that could bring Lucy back from the dead. In order for the spell to work, there are three things that need to happen approximately one year after death: (1) the deceased must have died before their time; (2) the person performing the spell has to have pure love for the deceased; (3) the Earth, the moon, and the dog star must be aligned in a perfect isosceles triangle. Zelda makes it happen, and Lucy returns from the grave. She then tries her best to navigate through life (again) while developing a romantic relationship with the ER doctor who witnessed her death (Gabriel Byrne).
There’s not much explanation of how the magic works post-resurrection, except that Lucy needs to find true love before the next full moon. Nothing is mentioned on how long her new life will last, if she will continue to age, etc. I love that the film doesn’t spend a ton of time getting lost in some bizarre, made up lore. Instead, we get to watch Lucy be an undead klutz with the most incredible fashion sense, and it’s wonderful.
Brandon, what are your thoughts on how Hello Again handles the subject of coming back from the dead? Was it boring or creative?
Brandon: I didn’t find the way it handles Lucy’s resurrection boring or creative, really. That’s because I’m not sure the film handles that subject at all. Lucy could’ve just as easily been deep-frozen, or lost in the woods, or simply comatose for a year and it wouldn’t have had that much effect on the film’s tone or plot. Hello Again is less about her being undead than it is about her being unflappable, sidestepping all of the possible morbidity of its zom-com premise in favor of A Modern Woman Making Her Own Way feel-goodery. And it’s cute as heck. We already have plenty gory screwball comedies about the decaying bodies of the living dead — from Death Becomes Her to Dead Man on Campus to Idle Hands to the aforementioned My Boyfriend’s Back. This particular zom-com feels way more fixated on how much your life & social standing would change if you unexpectedly disappeared for a year than it does on the practical, grisly details of its supernatural conflict, and that’s fine. If anything, the last 18 months of global social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that thought experiment more relevant and relatable. Watching Lucy emerge from the grave to feel out her place in a world that has moved on without her is eerily reminiscent of what it currently feels like to leave my house to see friends & family for the first time since the pandemic started. It’s a little awkward, a little absurd, surprisingly sad, but ultimately good for our souls.
If there’s anything I wished Hello Again would’ve pushed a little harder, it wouldn’t be the flesh-decaying zombie angle, but rather the Mr. Bean style physical humor Shelley Long gets to indulge in as a hopeless klutz. She’s incredibly loveable (and funny!) as a clumsy goofball who can barely keep herself together among the big-city sophisticates she refers to as “jazzy people.” I guess my ideal version of the film would be a Mr. Bean-meets-Groundhog Day premise where Lucy repeatedly dies in pathetically silly ways (steps on a rake, drowns in a birdbath, gets crushed by a falling piano, etc) only to get resurrected for yet another chance at self-actualization/true love until she gets it right. Instead, the movie brushes both its supernatural & slapstick shenanigans aside for some heartfelt melodrama about Lucy re-establishing her place in the world (with a brief flirtation with tabloid fame along the way). It’s cute, but not nearly as funny as watching her split her dress open at a fancy party to expose her underwear to all the major financial donors at her husband’s hospital so they can drop their monocles and exclaim “Well, I never!” The only other major Shelley Long star vehicle I can recall seeing is Troop Beverly Hills, and it’s only Lucy’s unfashionable clumsiness that really distinguishes those two performances for me (as adorable as they both are), so I would’ve loved to see it exaggerated to greater effect.
Hanna, what do you think Shelley Long brings to the table as the central performer here? Hello Again asks a lot of her as its star. She has to convey sincere romance with a dead-serious Gabriel Byrne as a rival doctor at her husband’s hospital; she has to comically outshine a wide range of the exact quirky side-character archetypes that she usually plays herself (especially Judith Ivey as her sister Zelda); she has to pose both as a dowdy housewife and a burgeoning fashionista. Does she somehow pull it all off?
Hanna: I’m not super familiar with Shelley Long (apart from her role in The Money Pit, which I love), but I was super impressed by her tireless commitment to the various zany demands of Hello Again. Her adaptability in whatever situation she’s thrown into is key to her character and the success of this movie; it seems obvious that one of Long’s strengths as a performer in general is being totally game for anything (including making a fool of herself), and that quality carries over to Lucy’s indomitable spirit in the face of heartbreak, fame, and the occult nonsense that brought her back to life. It helps that Long is eminently likeable! She’s especially charming when she’s living my nightmare of exposing her big white panties to a slew of hot-shot doctors at a dinner party, but I was just as happy to see her strut around her sister’s bookstore in an absurdly fabulous dress after her Big Makeover.
Even though Long obviously did a great job, I’m not sure if all of the threads of Hello Again came together in a satisfying way. Like Brandon said, there’s a lot going on: Lucy’s story is picked up by the global news and becomes a viral celebrity, forcing her to dodge paparazzi at the hospital; Jason (Corbin Bernsen) shacked up with Lucy’s opportunistic best friend, Kim (Sela Ward) in Lucy’s absence, then tries to win Lucy back once she becomes famous; and of course there’s the love subplot with the dreamy ER doctor Gabriel Byrne, which includes a Beauty and the Beast-ish threat of Lucy being sent back to the grave if she fails to find true love before the next full moon. There are a few more tiny subplots, but for the most part they were a little underdeveloped, and sometimes forgotten. This is especially true of Lucy’s love curse, which is briefly mentioned to add some stakes to her living situation but largely goes unaddressed without consequence. I really loved the characters in Hello Again and I was entertained by each scene individually, but I never felt like I had a firm grasp on the overall direction of the story. But! That’s okay – it was an absolute delight anyway.
Boomer, do you think Hello Again could have used a little more development, or was it perfect as an erratic late-80s comedy? Is there an element of Lucy’s life after death that you wish had been explored further?
Boomer: There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and one of the topics of discussion that we have danced around is Long’s big performance near the end in which she is supposedly possessed by the spirit of Kim’s latest (dead) husband. It’s a true delight in which she shows off her talent for funny voices and physical comedy that’s very large but refrains from going too broad. In a movie that is, in many ways, largely unfocused, it serves as a capstone on the various small bits of physical comedy scattered throughout. That’s kind of the film’s bread-and-butter, though, as it moves from a small, heartfelt reunion, to scenes of Lucy speaking with her former boss about how, despite being irreplaceable, she was replaced within two weeks of her death, to her realization that her understated suburban housewife style has become all the rage in Los Angeles, for dubiously believable pop psychology reasons. It’s fair to say that by the time they’re having a full-on Oh God! style press conference, things have gotten pretty muddled.
I did think that the brevity of the time between Lucy’s death and resurrection was a bit of a misstep. This is a bit of a strange reference point for a film in this genre, but I kept thinking about Flight of the Navigator, and how that film’s eight year jump forward allowed for the passage of enough time for significant changes to occur and thus return that film’s protagonist to a world that was sufficiently different and alienating. It might have been weird, narratively, for Zelda to still be clinging to the idea of bringing back her sister after so long a period of time, but while it’s not inconceivable that a year might be enough time for, say, a playground to be converted into a fairly-far-along construction site, it does seem like far too little time for various other events to have occurred. The one that seemed the most unbelievable to me was that her son, who was presumably 17 or 18 at the beginning of the film given that he was still deciding whether or not to go to college, had compressed what, in the real world, would be at least six years of professional development into a mere twelve months. A longer time before resurrection would also go some distance toward making Kim and Jason a little more well-rounded and multi-dimensional, as opposed to their largely static roles in the film as it exists now. In the film, the Jason moves on so quickly that it would probably raise a few eyebrows, and instead of having Kim simply hop into bed (and matrimony) with Jason, she could have had a scene with Lucy in which she talked about having a hard time finding her footing and eventually falling for Jason because the two spent so much time together after Lucy’s passing. I could definitely see both her and Jason played more sympathetically, with both of them as flawed individuals who brought out the worst in each other as her lust for wealth cross-pollinated with Jason’s ambitions to create an LA power, and powerfully misguided, couple.
Brandon: Even if it can be narratively frustrating, there is something charming about how disinterested Hello Again is in its own plot vs. how in love it is with its collection of quirky characters. One of the funniest line deliveries in the entire film is when Zelda crashes a stuffy society party and introduces herself to the shocked sophisticates, “My name’s Zelda! I have a story for you. Hey, don’t worry. I’m just Lucy’s eccentric sister.” I love how blatant the film’s priorities are in that exchange.
Boomer: I literally said “Oh my god, Sela, you look amazing” the moment she appeared on screen. I also love Judith Ivey. If you’re able to track it down, I’d recommend giving her audiobook version of the Stephen King short story “Luckey Quarter” (sic) a try; it’s very charming.
Upcoming Movies of the Month October: Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973) November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)