Romances are Hollywood's most anxiety-inducing fantasy. Like superhero flicks or horror films, they exist in a phony world of big scenes and breathtaking climaxes. But while audiences know that geeks can't meld with spiders and that the bogeyman isn't real, they still hope to fall in love, and, boy, it'd be nice if their partner were more like Tom Hanks (or Gosling, or Gere, or even mid-career Mel Gibson). Romantic comedy's mundanity is what gives it power, fed by the tears of every brokenhearted ex who can't understand why life isn't like the movies.
Here's why life isn't like the movies: Romantic comedies are insane. To sustain ninety minutes of suspense, the would-be lovers have to meet-cute, reject each other for mystifying reasons, then be forced by the universe to reunite. In reality, a couple who acts like this would have sworn each other off by the second act, and who has ever had a cosmic business deal/shared hair salon/clown academy ready to magically drag them back together?
David Wain's romantic comedy They Came Together isn't quite like those other movies. Squint at Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd and you could almost mistake them for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Both on-screen couples are respected by their peers, adored by the public, and a pleasant combination of petite blonde meets non-threatening hunk. There's just one difference: These comics acknowledge their movie is nuts.
They Came Together
Directed by David Wain. Written by David Wain and Michael Showalter. Starring Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Cobie Smulders, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Bill Hader, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey and Ed Helms.
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Rudd has played these parts before; nineteen years ago, he made his movie debut sourly wooing Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Consider They Came Together his joking apology. In it, Rudd and Poehler play Joel and Molly, a New York pair recounting the saga of how they met to their unhappily married friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) in a suave Upper West Side restaurant. He was a corporate shark for a behemoth candy superstore; she was an angel who ran a twee neighborhood sweet shop whose proceeds went straight to charity. From there you can predict every plot point. After Poehler's character beams, "The only difference is it's not a movie. It's our real life!," she pauses and shoots a knowing look at the camera.
They Came Together is a formulaic romantic comedy cranked up to eleven, loud enough to make the audience hear the distortion. If your typical ingénue is a klutz, Poehler opens the film knocking over every shoebox in her closet and promptly falling down the stairs. Joel and Molly exist in a bubble where even their accountants ask about their love lives, in a picture-perfect Manhattan that's so cliché, the local train stop is called the Upper West Side subway station. No matter what's on the screen, the soundtrack tinkles with aspirational jazz.
Wain and his co-writer, Michael Showalter, are stretching out the weird rhythms of sketch comedy to feature length. His last flick, Wanderlust, was a conventionally silly story about a married couple who move into a commune. The characters were relatable; it was the setting that was whacked. Here, everything's gone off the rails. To prove that Joel and Molly are made for each other, an early split screen shows them singing in separate showers to the same song. Then they both shave their faces. They're introduced in matching Benjamin Franklin outfits, a fact neither mentions, and immediately turn from charmers to monsters who hate each other on sight. And when they finally drop their defenses and bond, it's over banalities: a shared love of Q-tips, grandmothers, and the color blue, plus the stunning revelation that they both like books. Chirps Molly, "I've literally never met anyone else who likes fiction!"
They Came Together is one joke repeated until you're broken down by the giggles. It shouldn't work as well as it does, and wouldn't if it weren't perfectly cast with America's Comedy Sweethearts. Rudd's innocent good looks usually straitjacket him into playing the straight man. Here, he doesn't so much let his freak flag fly as let it gingerly unfurl, allowing him to keep pace with Poehler's manic girl next door. The two haven't rescued the romantic comedy — in truth, they've punted it out the window — but if they ever wanted to make one sincerely, it's a date.