David Wain, director of Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models, is back in snark mode (though he never really left) with They Came Together, a feature-length skewering of every rom-com cliché known to man starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd. But is the film better than some of the the saptastic treacle it mocks? Happily, yes.
The movie starts with Molly (Poehler) and Joel (Rudd) having dinner with their unhappily married friends Karen (Ellie Kemper) and Kyle (Bill Hader), regaling them with the story of their meet-cute and subsequent relationship roller coaster. “It’s kind of a corny, romantic comedy kind of story,” chirps Molly, “the only difference is it’s not a movie! It’s our real life!” Cue fourth wall break.
From there the movie takes us through the entire rom-com genre: She’s a quirky klutz with a carefree attitude toward life. He’s overly practical and has trouble getting in touch with his emotions. She’s the beloved owner of a neighborhood candy store. He a “corporate drone” who works for the megastore about to put her out of business. She was just dumped by a long-term boyfriend and wants to get in touch with her single self. He just got out of a relationship with the rom-com staple: the ice queen “bitch,” played by Cobie Smulders. There’s frolicking through Central Park and the awkward dinner with the parents. There are revelations that take place at the most dramatic possible moment. There are the friends and family members who exist only to help the main characters get to that final destination: true love.
They Came Together walks a tightrope, because they entire point of the movie is that neither Molly nor Joel even remotely resemble real people. They’re like if someone put Meg Ryan, Jennifer Garner, Matthew McConaughey (pre-McConaughaissance), and, well, Paul Rudd in a blender and hit purée. No matter how sharp the satire, can I stand a movie where I don’t care about the main characters–and, what’s more, am not supposed to care about them? They Came Together is literally just a parody of rom-coms—there’s nothing else there. Make a bunch of individual scenes parodying You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally, stitch them together with a tissue-thin plot, and you have this movie. A similar issue is what ruined David Gordon Green’s 2011 fantasy spoof Your Highness for me: It would’ve worked as a 20-minute short on YouTube, but the premise “Hey, let’s take this genre and make fun of it!” wasn’t enough to sustain a feature-length film.
But They Came Together succeeds where Your Highness failed. In part, that’s because it’s a short movie—at a mere 83 minutes, it gets in, does the job, and gets out. More important is that the humor—provided by co-writers Wain and Michael Showalter—works. There’s always a different cliché to mock, a new cameo to make you double-take. (There’s one near the end… I won’t spoil it, but it puts everything Muppets Most Wanted did to shame.) And Poehler and Rudd have the charm to pull it off without making you want to bash your head against the wall at what could have been a “Haha, look how stupid this thing is! I’m hilarious for pointing it out!” vibe.
They Came Together is out now in a few theaters, plus on VOD and iTunes. I’d recommend it. It’s not a movie that’s going to stay with you for years to come or change the way the human race views comedy, but it is funny.
And Cobie Smulders is secretly… well. Just watch it.