They Came Together, 2014
Directed by David Wain.
Starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler.
A couple tell the story of how they first met, which just so happens to have all the plot points of a by-numbers romantic comedy.
Just look at that poster. At first glance, the tone appears like any other romantic comedy. There’s the skyline of New York, the smiling faces, Paul Rudd. There’s also a neat little innuendo gag about coming together. A little average, but good enough.
But then you look a tad closer, at the disclaimer at the bottom. “Please Note: New York City plays such a central role in this story, it is like another character in the movie.” Huh…and then at the quotes usually reserved for glowing reviews. “Ed Helms will star opposite Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler!”; “The film shoots in July!” They’re all production news items. They Came Together isn’t just ‘any other romantic comedy.’
The self-reflexivity is present from the film’s outset, with Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Poehler) telling the story of how they first met to another couple, Karen (Ellie Kemper) and Kyle (Bill Hader), over dinner. Hader’s role is a doubly aware one. Not only is he lampooning the archetypal sympathetic ear role in rom coms, he’s also mocking his own, self-confessed cast-type as the ‘guy who plays the guy the lead actor needs to give exposition to.’ e.g. “You’re going to Hawaii!?”
This important facet of They Came Together is that rather than spoofing specific films, a la Scary/Epic/Date (delete as appropriate) Movie, it mocks the conventions at the heart of its targeted genre, more in the mold of Airplane! and Naked Gun.
In place of the quickly dating, reference-based jokes that have dominated spoof movies for the past decade-or-so, They Came Together cracks a series of running gags that poke fun at the entire genre. The “Wait…” joke, where characters dramatically pause to tell each other just one more thing before they leave, is done to death so much so that it rises again as a comedy zombie. During the ‘getting to know each other’ montage, the actors suddenly transition into a black and white, behind-the-scenes music video with Norah Jones and the other cast members fooling around on the instruments. “What a great song,” Kyle comments knowingly after the montage. “Where can I buy it?” And characters have the most absurdly vague traits in common. “Fiction books? …I love fiction books!” The persistent tomfoolery is inspired.
That last running gag serves for one of the movie’s best lines. Eggbert (Ed Helms) hates fiction, as the ‘guy-who-isn’t-right-for-the-girl’ character is want to do, and can’t understand why people enjoy reading anything other than historical fact. He recalls asking his English teacher about The Great Gatsby, “did any of this actually happen?” No. “Then why did someone write it down!? It’s just not real.” He’s talking just as much about the romantic comedy genre as his choice in literature.
It’s no surprise, then, that the jokes that fall flat are the ones that divert from the genre-spoofing intention. The superhero costume toilet incident, the white supremacist parents and the grandmother incest gags come off as cheap for a film so reflexively smart. For those brief scenes, They Came Together becomes no better than the movies it lampoons.
The strange thing is, for all its rejection of heart and subversion of sentimentality, you still become emotionally invested in the protagonists and their plight. Well, I did at least. There was only one other person in the audience who laughed as hard and consistently as myself. He’s called Andy and we’re best friends now, after we had to save our favourite cinema by winning a dance-off competition. It just goes to show, even when being spoofed, how effective romantic comedy conventions are.
At a lean 80 minutes long, They Came Together is a wonderfully brave piece of comedic filmmaking. By embracing the spirits of Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams, they’ve freed themselves from narrative restraints to create a movie delightfully wacky. And to them, just as they’re exiting through the door, you’ll hopefully find yourself saying: “wait…thanks.”
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Oliver Davis is one of Flickering Myth’s co-editors. You can follow him on Twitter (@OliDavis).