The fact that the 90s rom-com parody They Came Together – the latest from the comedic team of director David Wain and writer Michael Showalter – is coming almost 15 years too late to make an impact is part of a very specific and deeply hilarious joke that might be lost on most of the audience. Although more recently known for his work on high profile, yet still gleefully subversive studio projects like Role Models and Wanderlust, Wain’s work here feels more like a proper follow-up to his cult movie success with Wet Hot American Summer, a film that was languishing in relative obscurity while the kind of pabulum that’s getting eviscerated here was on top at the box office. Once again working with a stacked cast of people perfectly attuned to the same comedic wavelength, Wain works hard to make a comedy about films that try too hard in the first place.
Joel (Paul Rudd) is an executive for a major candy manufacturer that’s looking to run all other smaller candy shops out of New York City (which is so important that it’s another major character in the film). He was recently dumped by his ice hearted, but smokin’ hot girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) who decided to start shagging his arrogant, sleazy office mate (Michael Ian Black). Molly (Amy Poehler) is a quirky, klutzy, basically undatable everywoman who owns a not-for-profit candy shop. Their friends want to set them up. They hate each other at first sight. They realize they have a lot of stuff in common. They date. They break up. Things and stuff happen.
Much like Wet Hot, They Came Together is a very specific kind of parody and satire that plays to Showalter’s greatest strengths as a writer. It appears completely ramshackle and slapped together on purpose because it wants to make sure that not a single genre cliché escapes unskewered. At 83 minutes, the film is both tightly packed with gags per square inch that give off the feeling of almost a prime Zucker Brothers parody and it’s just long enough to never outstay its welcome. It’s main purpose is a pretty brilliant one: to entertain those who find nothing entertaining about “meet cute” comedies, and it goes about this in a far more astute and bracing fashion than the similarly minded 22 Jump Street attempted and nearly failed to do a couple of weeks ago. The main difference between the parody of Wain/Showalter and that of Phil Lord and Chris Miller is that Wain/Showalter want to invite the audience in and engage with them on a warmer level instead of merely pointing out genre flaws and then just simply giving in to them for the sake of a laugh. 22 Jump Street was funny enough in parts, but its metatexual ribbing often didn’t go beyond the most simplistic acknowledgement that they were making a straight up rehash of the first film. This a film that perfectly understands just how unhip it is and uses a reversed sense of nostalgia to rib similarly minded audience members into remembering just how terrible and literal minded most 90s and early aughts romantic comedies were.
It should be noted that the humor of Wain and Showalter is decidedly an acquired taste that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. For as many people think Wet Hot is one of the funniest films ever made, there are just as many who find its execution unsubtle and laboured (a criticism that could easily be leveled against their latest by people who hate obvious running gags and don’t find insincerity a virtue when it comes to parody). As much as I enjoyed Wanderlust, I remember when I watched it that the person sitting next to me in the press screening from a major daily newspaper lasted all of 15 minutes before angrily storming out and muttering to me as an aside “I can’t take this fucking shit anymore.” Such divisiveness is probably why They Came Together is getting quietly released as a bit of niche market counterprogramming during blockbuster season with a day-and-date VOD release. It’s the easiest way for the film to find an appreciative audience without getting blasted on the internet by the slew of people who are bound to hate it.
But for anyone ever annoyed by cinematic contrivances or who had to eyerollingly suffer through films like You’ve Got Mail, Serendipity, Runaway Bride, Home Fries, Fever Pitch, All About Steve, Simply Irresistible, Two of a Kind, Good Luck Chuck, either of the Mannequin films, or any number of other dire, idiotic, and insultingly sexist, racist, homophobic, or ableist pieces of dangerous garbage that are pitched to audiences as escapism, Wain and Showalter’s work will hit like a much needed catharsis for taxed viewers. What works so well about this film is how by sinking to the level of inanity set by the films it’s lampooning, They Came Together acts as a bit of an exposé. It’s an easy joke to make, but no one has ever pursued it as doggedly and with as much gleefully cynical aplomb as Wain and Showalter have. It’s showing open contempt for films that show an open contempt for their audiences. It’s certainly not a film designed to make a shitload of money at the box office. It’s a film that’s making an admittedly easy to make point, but one that does so with a great deal of manic energy and razor sharp wit.
The leads also do their part to sell the material, although Poehler might have had a purposefully underwritten and contradictory character, which makes it hard to tell if the movie is letting her down at time or her performance is somewhat confused. Either way, she’s still hilarious and her natural ability for laid back misanthropy serves her quite well. Rudd, himself no stranger to showing up in the kind of crappy films he’s poking fun at here, handles the material as if it were an exorcism of demons. He’s relishing the chance to be a complete goof while portraying one of the blandest people to have ever lived. Having both worked with Wain and Showalter before, they understand perfectly what the tone of the film should be and everything falls in quite nicely behind their lead.
As with most films of this kind, if one joke bombs there’s one either literally hiding in the background of a shot or another one seconds away from hitting, and most of those punchlines come from a cast of familiar faces in bit parts that once again come in knowing exactly the kind of tone and energy required by a Wain and Showalter collaboration. Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper get to show off their mastery of the stock “reaction shot” in the usually thankless role of the couple Joel and Molly are relaying their life’s story to. Ed Helms gets some choice moments as a nerdy accountant with a crush on Molly. Max Greenfield gets the truly thankless role of Joel’s screw-up younger brother, but few people have ever had this much obvious fun playing a deliberately throw-away character. Christopher Meloni once again plays a great sport capable of skewering his almost alpha-male looks as Joel’s boss. With the exception of Smulders, who really only has to do a Megan Fox impression to get by, everyone gets just enough to chew on to create great comedy from purposefully one dimensional characters. The film even manages to save its best bit player until the very end with a great, literal run-in that shouldn’t be spoiled for anyone.
While some might see They Came Together as a bit of a regression for Wain, it comes perfectly timed for those about to get burnt out on lunkheaded studio tentpoles and insincere sequels. Sure, this might have been more of a smash success in 2004 instead of 2014, but that’s also part of its charm. It’s the kind of film that looks and feels like it escaped from some kind of bizarro time vortex and a period of film history we’re still trying to forget. It’s an acquired taste, but one that made me laugh till I felt like I was making an ass of myself for laughing too much and too hard. You’re mileage may vary. I think it’s one of the best comedies of the year. You’ll probably disagree, but I can assure you there’s nothing else like this that you’ll see again in your lifetime.