David Wain, the writer-director behind Role Models and Wanderlust, could’ve made a great romantic comedy. Instead, with They Came Together, he decided to kick a good genre while it’s down. He’s lucky it’s pretty funny, or at least funny enough. The movie, which he wrote with frequent collaborator Michael Showalter, hunts down and obliterates every rom-com convention it can find, turning unspoken genre mechanics into literal lines of dialogue. Cliché perched on the precipice of preposterous is tipped over, embracing the ridiculous in a breezy parodic style. We may not have had a great rom-com in many years, but this mercilessly satiric one is intent on purposely resuscitating each and every musty old convention, turning them inside out, and finding the inherent absurdities within.
In theory, it’s a funny idea. And so it is, at least some of the time. For all the conceptual cleverness, it plays too often like a movie that’s mad you might like You’ve Got Mail. At least the parody film is a genre as moribund as the rom-com, so it comes across as good-natured ribbing from a similarly impoverished cultural place. Does They Came Together single-handedly revive two imperiled genres? Not quite. But it’s a great start that Wain’s film is the kind of sneakily appealing cerebral/stupid comedy that had me smiling even when I was not quite sure if it was working. It’s appealing, with loopily silly concepts and charm for days.
It helps that the leads are Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, two of the most delightful people in TV and movies today. With winning smiles and easygoing casual rapport, it’s always pleasant to spend time watching them interact. They could pull off a real rom-com, even a terrible one, on charm alone. So here, as they play a cutesy entrepreneur and a sneakily softhearted corporate drone, they break past the deliberately bland anonymity of their clichéd characters. Even though the movie is a relentless send-up of twee Hollywood True Love falsehoods, stretching those conventions to absurdity and beyond, I still found myself wanting to see them get together in the end. Go figure.
As they go through all the predictable Meet Cute bickering, falling-in-love montages, dramatic misunderstandings, tearful breakups, and last-minute chases to reconciliation, they speak the subtext in flatly stupid dialogue. But they deliver it as if it’s sparkling repartee. When Rudd plays a hilariously phony basketball game with his diverse group of friends, the advice they offer him makes clear they’re stand-ins for thematic points. One buddy says, “Marriage is great! That’s the point I represent.” Poehler’s presented as the typical klutz, prone to falling down flights of stairs, and a flighty romantic, eagerly flying into a montage of trying on clothes that lasts so long Rudd leaves the scene. Later, a makeout session is so exaggeratedly passionate they walk around the room, lips locked, knocking over everything in their path.
Square clichés are played so very straight, even as they’re knocked askew. The couple bonds over the blandest of generalizations. They’re shocked by the fact they both enjoy “fiction books” and have grandmas. As if those are rare loves in the average person’s life. Friends and family (in a huge ensemble that includes Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Christopher Meloni, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Melanie Lynskey, and more) only exist as reflections of the leads’ needs and fears. So far, so typical, but it’s imbued with an off-kilter energy that builds up the artificiality of the genre’s worst tendencies.
That’s why weirdness, slowly taking over entire sequences, creeps in around the edges: a framing device in which a dinner party is essentially held hostage by the couple relaying their self-centered story to a pair of friends; a bit of horseplay that ends in a man falling out a window; a moment in which a pompous boss poops his Halloween costume and desperately tries to hide the evidence; a scene that finds Poehler and Rudd angrily storming away from each other in the same direction, following each other for blocks. Wain takes simple, obvious scenes and stretches them so far past the breaking point it’d be hard not to admire the effort. Look at the endless loop of a conversation Rudd has with a bartender as it starts simple, grows stupid, and then continues, repeating itself until it's one of the funniest scenes of the year.
They Came Together invites likable strangeness under its umbrella of tropes, and then plays it relatively safe. On the one hand, there’s a great eagerness to how knowing the movie is, gently elbowing the audience in the ribs, saying, “see what we did there?” On the other hand, who isn’t aware of the standard rom-com structure and pitfalls, especially of the 20-year-old Ryan/Hanks variety from which this script takes its most obvious cues? That’s beside the point. This isn’t an expose of cliché. It starts off mocking the subgenre, but the bite fades into affection. That’s just fine. The leads are too likable and the formula so sturdily deployed, even as it’s undercut, to be a critique of the rom-com. It’s to 90’s romances what Wain’s cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer was to 80’s summer camp movies. That is to say, Wain is awfully good at creating sly and goofy spoof revivals of types of movies no one is making anymore.