Prospective dad hires surrogate mom; complications ensue

Matt (Ed Helms) hires Anna (Patti Harrison) to have his baby in Together Together.

By Richard Ades

I used to look down on the term “gentle comedy,” sarcastically defining it to mean “a comedy that isn’t very funny.” Together Together may have changed my mind.

Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith (whose previous film output is limited to 2015’s Stockholm, Pennsylvania), the flick lives up to both aspects of the genre. It’s sometimes really funny, and it’s always exquisitely gentle yet incisive as it orbits two people drawn together by both contractual requirements and emotional needs.

Matt (Ed Helms) is a 40-something man who’s tired of waiting for the perfect partner to come along before he can start a family. Anna (Patti Harrison) is a 20-something woman who answers Matt’s ad for a surrogate to bring to term the fetus formed by his sperm and an anonymous donor’s egg.

On paper, their duties are straightforward. Anna will give birth to the baby, then disappear as Matt begins experiencing the joys of fatherhood. But it’s all complicated by the months of shared responsibilities that must precede the birth, not to mention the years of pain and loneliness that brought each of them to where they are now.

We learn something about Matt’s unsuccessful attempts to find a life partner, and we learn more about Anna’s past traumas: While still a teenager, she got pregnant, had a son and gave him up for adoption. It’s an experience that interrupted her education and drove a seemingly permanent wedge between her and her family.

Ordinarily, a film that brings together a lonely man and an equally lonely woman is setting us up for a romantic connection, but Beckwith offers little hope for such a development. Instead, Matt and Anna establish boundaries, then cross them, redefine them and attempt to re-establish them as they stumble into something resembling friendship. But is any kind of friendship a good idea in a relationship that’s predestined to end after nine months?

The trickiness of their situation is explored in sometimes cringingly awkward scenes involving counseling sessions and such prenatal traditions as picking out a crib and hosting a baby shower. It’s also explored more hilariously in interactions with characters such as their sarcastic sonogram technician (Sufe Bradshaw) and Anna’s self-involved but occasionally perceptive co-worker (Julio Torres).

As welcome as the latter scenes’ laughs are, the film’s real source of joy is the delicate chemistry established by its two leads.

Helms’s Matt is an occasional blunderer whose heart nevertheless serves as a reliable rudder. Harrison’s Anna approaches life with a combination of amusement and determination that serves as an equally trustworthy guide. Together, despite their differences in age and temperament, the two sometimes manage to complement each other in ways that render their lives more bearable.

That makes the apparent temporariness of their bonding all the more bittersweet.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Together Together (rated R) is available in select theaters, including Central Ohio’s AMC Easton Towne Center 30, Cinemark Polaris 18 and Crosswoods 17. It will be available digitally beginning May 11.

His feet say yes, but his religion says no

Hasidic Jew Moshe Yehuda (Jos Laniado) and dance instructor Viviana Nieves (Karina Smirnoff) ponder how to enter a tango contest without touching.

By Richard Ades

Oh, those crazy Orthodox Jews. What bizarre dilemmas will their beliefs get them into next?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Shtisel, the Israeli TV series about an ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem. It’s partly because of my affection for the show that I thought Tango Shalom might be worth a look. Now making the rounds of Jewish film festivals (though it actually was shot several years back), it’s the story of Moshe Yehuda, a Hasidic Brooklynite who wants to dance the Argentine tango.

Since Orthodox men are forbidden to even shake hands with women who aren’t their wives, doing the tango with another woman is clearly off-limits. Yet Moshe (Jos Laniado) has what he believes are extenuating circumstances.

Moshe desperately needs money to support his family and to help younger brother Rahamim (Claudio Laniado) pay for his upcoming wedding. And if he wins an upcoming tango competition, he’ll take home enough cash to solve both problems. Surely the rules can be bent just this once?

Shtisel is full of such collisions between faith and personal needs and wants, but its approach is a bit more nuanced than the movie’s. Well, more than a bit. It’s like the difference between dropping a cherry on a sundae and dousing it with high-fructose corn syrup. For starters, some of Tango Shalom’s characters are such over-the-top stereotypes that it’s impossible to see them as real people.

Oy vey, do they drop a lot of Yiddish words! And oy gevalt, are they emotional! Example: When Rahamim shows up at a family dinner after shaving off his Hasidic beard, his mother (Renee Taylor) doesn’t just give him the evil eye. She bawls at full volume, even though her son’s fiancée and prospective in-laws are present.

Moshe, fortunately, is portrayed in a more restrained manner, but even he has his cartoonish moments. When a non-Orthodox woman tries to shake his hand, he recoils in horror like he’s just seen a ghost. And when a female doctor wants to perform an examination involving his private parts, he flees her office without even bothering to cover his backside (which probably violates a few Hasidic rules on its own).

Moshe (Jos Laniado) is comforted by the one woman he’s allowed to touch, wife Raquel (Judi Beecher).

A true family affair, Tango Shalom was directed by Gabriel Bologna and was co-written by his late father, actor Joseph Bologna, and Jos and Claudio Laniado, who are brothers in real life as well as onscreen. In addition, Joseph Bologna was the husband of cast member Taylor and played Father Anthony, one of several non-Jewish clerics Moshe turns to for spiritual guidance after failing to receive helpful advice from his own rabbi. Finally, the film’s lively score was co-written by the director’s wife, Zizi Bologna, and Zoe Tiganouria.

Other cast members include Judi Beecher as Moshe’s long-suffering wife, Lainie Kazan as Rahamim’s prospective mother-in-law and a surprisingly good Karina Smirnoff (of Dancing With the Stars fame) as a widowed dance instructor who urges Moshe to enter the tango contest with her because she has financial needs of her own.   

Despite its excesses and occasional inaccuracies—for one, Orthodox people do not as a rule enter non-Jewish houses of worship, as Moshe does early on—it’s hard to dislike Tango Shalom entirely. It creates a quirky situation and works it out in an ingenious way while beating a drum for religious tolerance. But it does all this in such an exaggerated, farcical way that only fans of old-fashioned Borsht Belt humor are likely to find it irresistible.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Tango Shalom can be viewed online through May 2 (in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia only) as part of Pittsburgh’s JFilm Festival. Visit

Man searches for past shaped by racial prejudice

Columbus resident David Bynum recaps his search for unknown family members in From a Place of Love–My Adoption Journey, a modest documentary he wrote and directed himself. For a review, visit the Columbus Free Press website.