We’re over two years into this thing now, and I think I’ve figured out at least partially why no movie that centers around the COVID-19 pandemic has been good. In fact, they’ve almost all been almost excruciatingly bad, with the exception of Steven Soderbergh’s straight-to-HBO Max thriller “Kimi,” which tied the protagonist’s anxiety to the pandemic in a relatable way. Other films tend to push fear and death into the background, concentrating instead on lockdown’s weird early days, where staying in one place for an extended period of time was a novelty that went hand-in-hand with zoom meetings and baking bread. Perhaps none of them are as insensitive, however, as “Alone Together,” a romantic comedy that begins in March 2020 written and directed by and starring Katie Holmes.
Holmes plays June, a New York City-based food critic. A quick montage that opens the film provides snapshots of her seemingly idyllic life in the city: she works, she attends fancy parties, and she spends time in Central Park with her boyfriend, John (Derek Luke). Then the movie suddenly shifts three weeks into the future, where what we all knew was coming has happened: the COVID-19 pandemic has struck, and no place in America has been harder hit than NYC. June’s first act in the film does nothing to endear the audience to her; rather than shelter in place, as the news reports and announcements that play over the scene recommend, she tries to catch a subway train headed upstate, where her boyfriend has booked a stay at an Airbnb in the country for them to “get away from it all.” The fact that June is obviously privileged enough to be able to simply leave the city when things get bad is awful enough, but she also thrusts that entitlement to the forefront of her persona. She throws a fit when the train is late, and another one at an attendant who tells her that all outgoing trains have been canceled (“But I have to get to my Airbnb!” she whines to a worker who really couldn’t care less). She throws a fit in her Lyft, after she receives a text from Luke that he won’t be joining her because he’s worried about his parents and wants to stay in the city with them. She throws a fit when she arrives at said Airbnb and finds she can’t get in— because the host accidentally double-booked the house, and there’s another guy, Charlie (Jim Sturgess) staying there. After resolving the situation temporarily at least—June doesn’t have a car and it’s late, so she’ll take the bedroom while Charlie sleeps on the couch downstairs— June has one more meltdown, when she discovers that she packed wine, but no bottle opener. Rather than check to see if the impeccably furnished home had one in the kitchen somewhere, she solves this problem by smashing the bottle against the wall— and then freaking out when it explodes all over her.
Holmes is embodying a character trope that has long been a staple of cable tv rom-coms: the uppity city woman who is all business, until she’s thrust into a situation and with people who prompt her to reconsider her worldview. And I can see glimpses of something real in her breakdown outside the Airbnb. It’s one of those moments where so many bad things have been building up that finally one of them, however small and inconsequential, completely wrecks you. Holmes discards this side of June remarkably and thankfully quickly, after Charlie’s act of bringing her a burger from McDonald’s (despite her protests that she’s “trying to be a vegan”) warms him to her, but there’s little substance in the film that follows to make up for the rough opening twenty minutes. June and Charlie don’t seem too concerned about getting Covid from each other (one of the film’s many questionable angles on the pandemic), but they can’t really go anywhere either, and lockdown is an excuse to throw these two seemingly very different individuals into a room together and see how things shake out. But their conversations as they try to get to know each other aren’t very interesting (love to see Charlie employing that classic pick-up line, “what’s your favorite book?). Holmes and Sturgess are best together when they are laughing and playing around and genuinely appearing to be having fun, but when the film tries to make more profound statements, neither their performances nor the script are up to the challenge. When Sturgess monologues about a motel they stumble across on a bike ride, it’s heavy-handed and awkwardly directed. Melissa Leo pops in and out via video chat as Charlie’s mom, representative of an older generation struggling with the changes to their routine that the pandemic has wrought. Characters drop big emotional bombs out of nowhere in the middle of conversations. Poor communication makes up about 90% of the conflict in the majority of romantic comedies, but “Alone Together” takes it to a borderline absurd level. I won’t even get into what June does the minute she and Charlie get together (less than halfway through the movie), but while we’ve seen by that point that she can be fun and charming, it’s an action that recalls that insensitive person we saw at the beginning of the film.
Throughout “Alone Together,” the pandemic is sort of present, but also sort of not. As Charlie and June piddle about their Airbnb and fall in love, radio and news reports in the background serve as a constant and dire reminder of what the rest of the world is going through. But that’s all it really is: background. Again, Charlie and June don’t seem overly concerned. When they hear that the CDC is now recommending that all people wear face masks in public, their sewing of homemade masks from one of Charlie’s old shirts is framed as a cutesy couple activity. June uses “it’s a really weird time right now” as an excuse for…everything, but the fact that the world is burning around her doesn’t have any tangible effect on her. And why would it? As far as she’s concerned, the world at large is a very different one from the pleasant bubble she shares with Charlie. Even when death encroaches on her happiness, it feels manipulative above all else, a ham-fisted effort to inject this otherwise virtually lifeless story where characters make nothing but a series of asinine decisions with a shot of real emotion.
I’m not really interested in watching movies set around the pandemic right now at all, so maybe “Alone Together” was never going to be for me. But I can’t imagine the film’s faults playing any better years from now either. The truest sequence comes when we catch a glimpse of June’s life with Luke after we’ve seen what she’s like with Charlie. June and Luke share the same space, but there’s a distance between them; it’s this pair, not June and Charlie, who are truly alone together, and the effectiveness of this sequence suggests that Holmes does have a directorial eye (this is the second feature she’s helmed) that’s more apparent when her dialogue isn’t bringing the entire scene crashing down. There’s an appeal in watching pretty people in a pretty place finding happiness with each other, but when that appeal doesn’t extend deeper than aesthetics, we’re not left with much to feel but frustration at giving these characters so much of our time.
“Alone Together” will open in select theaters on July 22 and be available to watch on demand on July 29. Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy Vertical Entertainment.