They Came Together

June 28, 2014


The romantic comedy is, in many ways, a dead genre.  Well, “dead” is probably too harsh, but it’s certainly dormant, at least on a cultural level from where it once was.  Studios no longer seem interested in attempting to counter-program their tentpole blockbusters, probably because they’re finding franchises that appeal to women as much as men – or should I say, “girls as much as boys”.  This isn’t totally a bad thing, at least in regards to how the rom-com has been used for the past several decades.  There’s something utterly condescending about the studio execs greenlighting moderately budgeted films that they think women will like, whilst making sure they adhere to a very specific set of tropes because that’s what women “want to see”.  It’s not true, and Bridesmaids and The Heat have given them another outlet to grasp for the female dollar, which is fine as far as it goes.  It’s nice that to some degree the executives don’t think all women just want to live out some fantasy about finding “the one”.  Still, the romantic comedy is one of the most intriguing and potentially (though rarely realized) affecting genres in the storied history of film.  Whip-smart dialogue that crackles, solid and interesting and goofy characters just this side of the absurd, and grounding in a basic longing that perversely plays itself out as fantasy – the desire to love and be loved in return is fulfilled, but only in fantastical circumstances that look and feel like something that might be considered reality, but isn’t.  I have a deep love for romantic comedies, and I’m sad to see them so often relegated to rush jobs dumped onto VOD platforms, but I’m not so blinkered that I don’t think the past several decades has meant they’ve sort of earned it.

David Wain’s They Came Together, is, then a peculiar parody that feels at least a decade too late.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out the creaky plots and scenarios that have been the lynchpin of so many terrible (and a few good) rom-coms in recent memory.  In that regard, there’s very little surprising about the venture.  We all know the tropes, and arguably the rom-coms have known them as well, but here they all are, presented in a rather over-determined manner as though we didn’t.  There’s a real lack of imagination here, and even if Wain has mined that tone before in his cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, that film was a parody of a really peculiar genre with a short-lived popularity.  The rom-com is, despite its dormancy, still widely understood and relatively ubiquitous.  They Came Together is a straight-up parody, where characters spell out what’s happening whilst also playing at being unaware of what’s going on.  It’s also pretty dumb, as the title no doubt suggests.

Borrowing liberally from You’ve Got Mail (itself a remake of one of the classics of the genre, The Shop Around the Corner), the film stars Paul Rudd as Joel, an executive at a Corporate Candy Company that’s about to put Amy Poehler’s Molly’s local candy store out of business.  The gags are obvious and right on the surface throughout, including Molly’s business giving out all the candy for free.  There is the introduction of the one-note friends (who spell out that their one-dimensional natures combine into that of the main character, because everything in this film is spelled out), the evil business rivals, the exes and the potential but ill-fitting suitor.  There’s even a montage that turns into a Norah Jones music video, all taking place in the recording studio, a gag that was last relevant in 1996.  It’s all there, and it’s all very, very easy.

It doesn’t help that the production looks ugly, cheap, and flat – something that might be a comment on the look of romantic comedies in general but actually comes across like this was really intended to be a feature length Funny or Die web video.  The supporting cast is familiar and very good, though they reinforce the idea that this was a goof thrown together in a weekend just so some pals can swing by and hang out for a few days of shooting.

Despite all this, it’s actually quite funny.  Not clever or ripping or even what many would consider to be “witty”, but I laughed frequently and without shame.  It flirts with the surreal on occasion, and it loves to play up repetition comedy; neither aspect is particularly noteworthy, but it’s just enough oddness to be funny without moving into groans.  Or maybe it’s just finding that place where groans can be laughs.  The real irony here is that it works for the same reason the most tired of rom-com plots can be enjoyable – the charm of its leads.  Central to any romantic comedy is the charm and chemistry of its leads.  27 Dresses is a terrible and unoriginal film on virtually every level, but it’s actually quite functionally enjoyable because Katherine Heigl and James Marsden are very good together.  They Came Together has the inestimable likeability of Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd at its center, and although the material is ropey and kind of lame, it’s virtually impossible not to want to hang out with these two when they’re in full-on goof-off mode.  Rudd especially is a pro at playing up the doofus whilst pulling off the winking, something in evidence all the way back in his remarkable cafeteria scene in Wet Hot American Summer.  He has a way of committing to the stupidity without overdoing it in too broad a manner.  So yes, this film is just friends hanging out having a goofy time, and it’s a parade of jokes that feel like they were tossed off after a few beers amongst friends, but it’s funny enough to overcome its technical and screenplay issues.  It’s not a good movie, and I’m not even sure I’d consider it a “movie”, but it made me laugh, and that’s more than most of the films it sends up have accomplished.



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