When the guys who wrote Wet Hot American Summer team with some of the best comedians in the business to parody the romantic comedy genre, you can almost guarantee that the result is going to be funny. But no matter how many times I laughed – a considerable number, mind you – I can’t say that They Came Together is a good film. Why? Because we don’t ever care about the characters or what they’re doing. The movie’s premise is also its own downfall.
It opens with a framing device featuring Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) as they explain to another couple how they met, and the film flashes back to show us all the major steps in their relationship. The characters are all aware that their story sounds like something from a cheesy romantic comedy, and as the flashbacks play out, we see that everything happens almost exactly as it would in a romantic comedy: there are soaring helicopter shots of the Manhattan skyline, the city of New York is a “character” of its own, she owns a little candy shop, he works for the candy shop conglomerate who will put her out of business, and every single element of the story – from their meet-cute, to the inevitable breakup and reconciliation – is pulled straight from other movies in the romcom genre, winking at the audience the entire time as it skewers each plot point. Mix in a bit of the weird non-sequiters and bizarre humor expected from writer/director David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter, and you know what you’re getting yourself into.
I laughed out loud about a dozen times at Wain and Showalter’s insane gags – Rudd pulling a cheeseburger instead of a quarter from a kid’s ear, for example – but that’s because moments like that are so outrageous you’d never see them coming, a far cry from most of this movie, in which you can easily figure out how it will go down because it so closely follows the standard romcom formula. Any deviations from that are hilarious – the weirder, the better. The rest of the movie? Not so much. Sure, I found it amusing when Joel goes to play basketball with his buddies and get life lessons from them, since they each represent a different “standard romantic comedy friend” point of view. But when the guys start shooting the ball, yelling things like “Swish!” as the ball clangs hard off the backboard, it made me think twice. The joke is that in most other movies, the characters make the shot, but Philip Seymour Hoffman already hilariously missed every one while being overly confident in Along Came Polly, so this joke just seemed like it was trying to steal that movie’s thunder.
I love meta humor, but Wain and Showalter would do well to take a lesson on it from Dan Harmon or Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Meta gags in “Community” or 22 Jump Street work because those properties are telling their own stories with their own set of characters that we actually care about, not just making a joke for the sake of the joke. They Came Together is too concerned with sending up a genre and not concerned enough with building interesting characters for the audience to connect with. This film has an amazing cast featuring Poehler, Rudd, Jason Mantzoukas, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Ed Helms, Cobie Smulders, Michael Ian Black, Christopher Meloni, and some incredibly funny cameos and other actors you definitely won’t expect to show up in small roles, but there’s no substance here. Jokes are fine, but when we don’t really care about what happens to the main characters, something’s wrong.
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