Genres are based on convention and cliché. They become the basis of a sort of secret handshake between the filmmakers and the audience. The details change from movie to movie, and the set pieces move around, but the overall structure stays the same. Everyone knows what to expect. And if there is one genre that has remained uncomfortably bound to this sense of formula, it is the romantic comedy. David Wain’s (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models) new comedy They Came Together sets its satirical sights on the well-worn tropes of this genre. The result is an 83-minute romp that balances its occasional misses with some strong hits and general sense of self-awareness and manic absurdity.
We first meet Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) as a presumptively happy couple out to dinner with their friends, played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper. The dinner serves as a tidy framing device for them to tell their story, which they preface by saying “is just like a romantic comedy.” Cue music and montage of the New York skyline. From there on it’s a race to hit as many rom-com clichés possible until the credits roll. David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter might not nail every played out trope, but they come damn close. The fetishization of New York City, a chance meeting at a party, another chance meeting at an independent bookstore, judgmental older sisters, big dreaming young brothers, crazy ex-girlfriends and boyfriends. This one’s got ‘em all.
They Came Together represents a class of parody they don’t really make anymore. Studios still toss one out every once in a while, but they’re primarily of the [Insert Genre Here] Movie variety. Those films have a much shorter shelf life, as their jokes are based on the audience’s knowledge not just of the genre, but of the specific set of films they’re spoofing. For example, many of Scary Movie’s jokes are now primarily lost on people not familiar with Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. The comedy of They Came Together is more in the vein of Airplane, which is still funny even if you haven’t seen the movies it’s riffing on (Zero Hour! and Airport 1975 by the way).
In lieu of spoofing specific plots and characters, Joel and Molly become exaggerated archetypes working through exaggerated character arcs. There’s never a moment when you mistake any of these characters for people; that’s not their purpose. The problem is that in a character driven genre like the romantic comedy, when you strip away the people, there is very little left to keep you engaged. Here is where They Came Together rubs up against the impossibility built by its script. The story is propelled entirely by Joel and Molly, and since they are so patently and purposefully unreal, the film begins to rely on the shtick itself to drive the film forward. Thankfully it’s well-crafted shtick.
Wain and Showalter’s script is sharp and self-aware, almost to a wearying degree. Viewers might find themselves getting sore about 40 minutes in from the constant ribbing. Thankfully the satire is dolled out with a nearly equal amount of absurdity and gleeful stupidity. Wain has the good sense to devote more than a minute of the film’s mercifully taught running time into an inane “You can say that again… tell me about it” feedback loop. It’s moments like this that show he has enough comedic sense of his own to lend credibility to the mockery he deals out in droves.
Parody or not, comedies live or die by their casts, and They Came Together boasts from a spectacular band of actors. Rudd and Poehler both turn in commendable performances, committing full-heartedly to the ham-fisted and irreverent logic the film lives by. While their relationship never touches ground in anything we might call the real world, it has a genuine spark of chemistry that shimmers at the heart of all the satirical nonsense. Their surrounded by an equally talent cast including Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Christopher Meloni, Melanie Lynskey, and Michael Ian Black.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
They Came Together is all about the jokes. Even its title is a dirty little double entendre. The self-aware humor becomes exhausting, and Wain’s insistence on reminding the viewers that he’s in on all the jokes is both tedious and unnecessary. That being said, it is a very funny movie. With great performances and a script that is smarter than the average parody, it’s hard not to recommend They Came Together. It’s a film that feels neither lesser or greater than the sum of it’s parts, but rather the exact total of it’s many components, and sometimes that’s okay.