You have watched all these scenes before, but they have never been so funny. David Wain’s They Came Together is a parody of the romantic comedy genre, a distillation of every hackneyed trope into eighty minutes of absurdity.
Amy Poehler stars as Molly, the owner of a quaint candy store. She is adorably clumsy, as all rom-com heroines must be—one of the opening shots shows her tumbling down a flight of stairs—yet mysteriously still single. Paul Rudd plays opposite her as Joel, a kind-hearted businessman whose girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) is cheating on him with one of his corporate colleagues (a wonderfully sleazy Michael Ian Black). The kicker, of course, is that Joel’s company is a huge candy chain, and his boss wants to run Molly’s cute store out of business. They meet at a Halloween party, each independently dressed as Abraham Lincoln (“They came together!” is answered with an angry, “No, we didn’t!”) and do not hit it off. It takes a chance encounter in a bookstore for romance to blossom: “I’ve never met anyone else who likes fiction!”
The plot of this parody is predictable, especially for anyone familiar with You’ve Got Mail, but that’s the point. The story is always the same, yet we watch because we want to see the happy ending, when the couple overcomes each obstacle and love prevails. To his credit, Wain makes sure that this is the case in They Came Together, too. It would have been very easy to create a rom-com spoof that sucked all the joy out of the genre, but this movie never veers from parody into contempt. The stars have real chemistry, and the supporting cast is one of the best of any recent comedy—Jason Mantzoukas, Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Ed Helms, Chris Meloni, and Ken Marino all bring a goofy silliness that keeps the film fun where it could be scornful. We root for Molly and Joel, even as we recognize every clichéd trick designed to inspire just that response.
Where the script (by Wain and Michael Showalter) stumbles slightly, it is unfortunately made even more visible in contrast to the cleverness of the best lines. Most jokes are strong, and there is an impressive balance between wit (“Your story really is like a corny movie!”), physical comedy (the heroes dramatically destroy Molly’s house as they succumb to passion), and gentle lampoon (Rudd’s leading man is described as “handsome, but in a nonthreatening way” and “vaguely but not overtly Jewish”). In comparison, scenes that don’t quite hit the mark stand out more starkly, and there are a few of these. .
I find it nevertheless consistently impressive—and a sign of just how many rom-com tropes there are—that the concept succeeds at all as a full-length feature film. This film might have been just a SNL sketch that didn’t know when to quit, but Wain and Showalter manage to blend in just the right amount of sincerity so the parody stays feeling pretty fresh for the full run-time.
If you have seen and enjoyed Wet Hot American Summer, written by that very same duo and featuring many of the actors mentioned in this review, you will probably appreciate They Came Together. It is not quite as weird as the summer camp cult favorite, but its combination of outstanding comedy performances and an absurd but strangely logical screenplay is comfortably familiar. These tender satires are for people who love movies, who will recognize all the clichés and the plot devices with fondness rather than disdain. Someone who has never watched a romantic comedy will probably not have fun with Poehler and Rudd’s kooky couple. But those who know the genre should at least crack a smile at the cheerful celebration of those elements that consistently keep us coming back for more.
Admittedly, you have watched these scenes before. You have seen the meet-cute, the meet-the-parents, the dramatic wedding interruption. They Came Together is not trying to convince you otherwise; it is encouraging you to acknowledge and enjoy the formula. This is mockery, yes, but of the most affectionate kind. Wain and Showalter made the movie “because, in truth, we are big, big fans of the romantic comedy.” It shows.
A loving parody held together by a wonderful cast.