Who’s going to make the first truly great COVID movie? A number of filmmakers have thrown their hats in the ring since the pandemic began in earnest two and a half years ago, but so far the documentaries have outpaced every drama not named “Kimi.” Katie Holmes’ sophomore directorial effort does little to change that.
“Alone Together” — which Holmes also wrote, produced and stars in — takes place in the early days of lockdown, when uncertainty was rising as rapidly as case counts. Holmes stars as June, a New York food critic who flees the city thinking that her boyfriend (Derek Luke) will be joining her Upstate; when his family situation prevents that, she and another man (Jim Sturgess) find themselves alone … together.
A double-booking error forces the two of them to stay in the same AirBnB a few hours outside the city, with what happens next sure to surprise anyone who’s never seen a movie before. But the film’s low-key charms, such as they are, aren’t restrained by adherence to formula so much as its myopic worldview. Focusing an early-pandemic drama on two people who can afford to quarantine far away from the hoi polloi is a choice, as the kids say, as is the bizarrely casual reveal that one of the principals lost their parents in a murder-suicide; there’s also a strange amount of product placement, with a certain fast-food chain and canned-spaghetti empire getting more screentime than you’re probably expecting.
Suffice to say that all this distracts from what’s meant to be a conversation-heavy romance about the importance of human connection at a time when so many of us were physically distanced from our loved ones (hence the title). Holmes is one of those actors whose presence on-screen elicits a kind of nostalgic comfort, and her many behind-the-scenes credits make it clear this was a passion project. It’s just hard to share that passion, in part because June and Charlie (Sturgess) aren’t compelling avatars for our collective anxiety in the spring of 2020. Or for anything else, really — they’re both just kind of there as characters, which is especially troublesome given that “Alone Together” is essentially a two-hander, though Zosia Mamet and Melissa Leo do show up on the other end of a few FaceTime calls.
Still, it does have its moments. June is at her most endearing when she’s simply being herself, whether that’s her nonplussed reaction to a panhandler yelling, “The world’s ending, bitch! I shouldn’t have to ask twice!” or just going for a walk in the woods. It’s when Holmes’ writer-director side has Holmes the actor try to spin June’s circumstances into timely drama that “Alone Together” runs into problems.
At this point, one suspects the best COVID movie may only tangentially be a COVID movie (Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” is still the best 9/11 drama, and it’s barely about 9/11 at all). Making worthwhile films about ongoing and/or recent historic events has always been a dicey proposition, as anyone who remembers the many attempts at Iraq War dramas before “The Hurt Locker” can attest. So while it might not be “too soon” for this movie to exist, the prospect of reliving March 2020 seems unlikely to appeal to many viewers right now.
From overheard news coverage featuring Andrew Cuomo to those initial hopes that this would all be over in a few weeks, “Alone Together” immerses us in a not-too-distant past that few will be excited to relive — the cautious optimism was so thoroughly snuffed out by top-level mismanagement that it’s hard to look back on the period with anything approaching good feelings. The biggest problem with “Alone Together” is that it doesn’t seem to have absorbed any of the lessons we’ve learned since then; it feels like it was made without the benefit of hindsight, which might leave you wondering why it was made at all.