'They Came Together'
From its cute/gross title to its ludicrous climax, David Wain and Michael Showalter don’t just mock the romantic comedy in ‘They Came Together’, they make the genre feel so ridiculous that you’ll hate yourself for ever falling for the tropes elsewhere. It’s an act of cinematic sarcasm, much like the filmmakers’ cult classic ‘Wet Hot American Summer’, and should polarize audiences just as pleasurably.
The best litmus test to determine whether ‘They Came Together’ is for you is whether you liked ‘Wet Hot American Summer’. A bomb upon release that subsequently became one of the most beloved cult comedies of the 2000s, that summer camp parody played out scenes known and loathed from previous movies for campy (please for the love of god forgive the pun) meta-humor and as a springboard for surreal digressions into sublime silliness. It’s a movie pretty much impossible to describe.
You kind of have to see it to understand the bizarre sense of humor that the Wain/Showalter team explores. I can only describe it as cinematic sarcasm, but even that doesn’t quite do it justice. ‘They Came Together’ plays out like every rom-com you’ve ever seen, except the filmmakers are aware of the clichés they employ and amp them up to ludicrous levels. Call it a meta romantic comedy. While that’s not necessarily a genre that will have a massive adoring audience, those who get the joke will fall harder for the movie than the stars of any Nicholas Sparks hogwash.
One of the best aspects of the film is that the filmmakers got Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler to star at a point in their careers where the duo should have headlined a straight rom-com together. Plastering them all over generic posters turns the movie into a cinematic prank on undiscerning viewers. Of course, both Rudd and Poehler were in ‘Wet Hot’ long before they were stars, and understand the Wain school of anti-comedy even more than the mainstream projects they headline. The couple opens the film at a dinner with friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) describing their unlikely love story. He was a rich executive at a major candy corporation; she was a klutzy owner of a indie candy store that Rudd’s company tried to put out of business. They met at a Halloween party and hated each other, but after discovering that they both loved fiction books, they fell in love. Then they fell out of love, but only to build up to a climatic triumph of gooey emotion.
It’s a story you’ve heard a bazillion times before, and Wain/Showalter take delight in pointing that out, sometimes in silly ways (like Poehler’s endless stream of pratfalls to underline her klutziness) and sometimes in deconstructive ways (like when Rudd’s friends point out that they each represent parts of his personality, and if he could learn a lesson from all of them, he’d be a better person). It’s smart and stupid at the same time and always goes for the laugh above all else. This isn’t a movie like ’22 Jump Street’ that works as a satisfying action/comedy/sequel while mocking those genre labels. There’s no real romance or feeling in ‘They Came Together’. In fact, it probably works best if you hate movies that make you feel.
The script is such a delightful and well thought-out writing exorcize that it would probably work best as an assignment in a screenwriting class. (Certainly, the joke about one-note characters and plot devices being introduced and dropped until the climax will only work if you have a cynical understanding of screenplay structure.) But it also plays well as a movie because Wain stacked his deck with an amazing cast of comedy veterans, including the likes of Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Jason Mantzoukas, Christopher Meloni, Ed Helms, Jack McBrayer and too many others to mention (plus two amazing cameos from non-comedians that get the biggest laughs in the movie). Everyone gets Wain and Showalter’s meta jokes and plays them up hysterically. Even scenes that depart from rom-com mockery come in quotation marks. (One is a poop joke about poop jokes.)
The closest point of comparison outside of Wain and Showalter’s strange little world are probably the early Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movies like ‘Airplane!’, but even those aren’t quite so arch and knowing. For fans of ‘Wet Hot American Summer’, this is the movie you’ve been waiting ten years to see, recapturing that oddball and unique tone. If ‘They Came Together’ doesn’t play as well as the last Wain/Showalter classic, that’s probably because: A) Their rom-com doesn’t make as many departures into pure surrealism, and B) These sorts of comedies tend to only get better after multiple viewings. This is undoubtedly the strangest damn American comedy that will hit screens in 2014, and the fact that it comes in a package that superficially appears to be a safe rom-com (the safest of all genres)… well, that’s just the biggest joke of the whole production. Plenty of people will hate it, but the best comedies tend to split audiences. Those who get it will love it.