They Came Together (2014)
Editor’s Notes: They Came Together is now out in limited release.
The romantic comedy, like all genres, has familiar rhythms and tropes, ones that connoisseurs know by heart. David Wain’s new comedy They Came Together attempts to jam all those tropes in a blender, set it on obliterate, and come up with the ultimate satirical smoothie of rom com blandness. It’s a terrific conceit, admirably executed, but what sets They Came Together over the top into great comedy territory are the zany chances it takes with gross out gags and storytelling beats.
…what sets They Came Together over the top into great comedy territory are the zany chances it takes with gross out gags and storytelling beats.
The premise is laid bare in the film’s opening scene: Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) explain their meet cute to a fellow couple with whom they are dining (Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader). They warn them at the beginning that theirs is a tale exactly like a cheesy rom com, then go on to prove it with an excruciatingly detailed story of twists and turns and serendipity. The bare bones plot is lifted wholesale from You’ve Got Mail: Molly runs an artisan sweet shop in Manhattan (where all proceeds go to charity), while Joel works as an executive for a sinister candy conglomeration that plans a superstore right across from Molly’s business. They get set up by friends after Joel discovers his long time girlfriend (Coby Smulders) in bed with a sleazy work rival (Wain’s delightful long time collaborator Michael Ian Black). Joel and Molly fight at first, but they hit it off because of their shared love of “fiction books” (one of my favorite running gags in the film). They quickly go through all the stages expected of them as rom com characters: blooming love, heart rending break up, failed reconciliation, then last minute reunion.
There are a few times over the course of the film that this meta approach to the genre comes across as a little too smug and winky, usually when characters come right out and essentially say what stock character they are playing (“This is the viewpoint that I represent”, one character says). A few times the film falls into the trap of merely presenting a trope rather than skewering it hard; for example, the “trying on clothes” montage fell a bit flat. And it would take a more experienced rom com veteran than I to fully evaluate the success of They Came Together’s various assaults on the genre.
Nevertheless, They Came Together manages to nail the central pernicious idea of most rom coms, that the only two people who matter are those at the center of the story. The film does this by making the supporting characters abundant and disposable. There’s even a running joke about their friends who are listening being unable to keep track of the sheer number of people running around the story. My two favorite examples are as follows. First, They Came Together brilliantly skewers the “sassy black friend” archetype in the character of Wanda, Molly’s assistant at the candy store. Wanda very consciously only exists in the film to give advice with attitude, and Teyonah Parris absolutely knocks her performance out of the park with a combination of over the top pizzazz and self-aware mailing it in. Second, there’s a brilliant moment where, out of nowhere, Joel meets Molly’s son, who exists solely to bond quickly with Joel, viewing him as a surrogate father figure, and then disappear till the very end of the film. It’s a dark, cynical take on the selfishness of romantic leads, and it plays perfectly.
They Came Together manages to nail the central pernicious idea of most rom coms, that the only two people who matter are those at the center of the story.
If They Came Together merely provided deconstruction of the romantic comedy formula, it would be fun but forgettable. What sets it apart as a comedy, then, is its crisp execution of jokes. At times it feels like a throwback to the ZAZ comedies of yore, lame sight gags included (example: there’s a snooty waiter who literally has a huge pole sticking out of his ass). The film gives inspired examples of many classic gags, including one of the best iterations of the “Sideshow Bob rake gag” that I’ve ever seen. It’s not afraid to get goofy, with Amy Poehler falling down all over the place, and the silliest sex montage this side of Team America: World Police. And, though it does not rely too much on shock humor, there were several scenes where I gasped out loud at the outrageous twists on display, before bursting into laughter (without giving anything away, the joke involving Rudd’s grandmother is particularly gasp-inducing).
Rudd and Poehler breeze through the material with verve. Rudd is great as the aw shucks hero (hearing him explain his coffee shop idea, “A Cup of Joel”, is worth the price of admission alone). Poehler does a lot with the sweet but klutzy dynamic of her character. As befits a spoof, the rest of the cast is chockablock with ringers giving great performances with little screen time. Hader and Kemper, though given little to do, make the most of their increasingly impatient characters (and Hader delivers an absolutely ace line reading in one of the movie’s funniest scenes). The always superb Christopher Meloni shines as Rudd’s boss - it’s hard to imagine someone else bringing Meloni’s straightforward gravity to a scene where his character craps his pants at a Halloween party. The few times the film begins to flag, it gets rescued by the energetic performance of Max Greenfield as Joel’s ne’er do well younger brother.
They Came Together does not have quite the bizarre momentum to rival Wain’s best beloved film, the cult hit Wet Hot American Summer. But while it may fall just short of comedy classic, They Came Together is sure to be one of the funniest films you’ll see this year, and deserves to be watched and rewatched as much as your favorite sappy rom com.
They Came Together combines sharp satire with a goofy, try anything sensibility, resulting in a delicious, heady mix of comedy.