[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. They Came Together opens today in limited release and on VOD]
When director David Wain does his own thing, it may not be for everyone, but he’s also at his best. His more mainstream films, Role Models and Wanderlust, are entertaining, but his work on The State, Stella, and the classic Wet Hot American Summer is distinct, absurd, bold, and painfully funny. His latest, They Came Together, is Wain embracing his unique comic voice as he turns to mock one of Hollywood’s easiest targets, the romantic comedy. Despite the easily apparent flaws of that genre, Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter not only poke fun at the obvious tropes, but also let their delightfully twisted comedy burst through. Further supported by Paul Rudd brilliantly and brutally skewering his familiar leading man persona, They Came Together doesn’t bring the rom-com to its knees, but it does deliver a well-deserved gut punch.
During a double-date with their friends (played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), couple Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) relate the history of their love story, and specifically liken it to a cheesy romantic comedy where “New York is almost like another character”. They then go through the standard motions of Molly being a quirky klutz who runs a candy store, and Joel working for a giant corporation (Candy Research Systems) that will crush her tiny business. Neither one of them knows this of course; first they hate each other for frivolous reasons, then like each other for equally frivolous reasons (they both like “fiction books”), then fall in love, etc.
Wain knows we’re aware of the steps, and pointing them out is the soft jab. But then the movie will unleash something completely outlandish and hilarious. I won’t specify any scenes because part of their value comes from the surprise, but they’re reminiscent of the scene from Wet Hot American Summer where the counselors go into town, become heroin addicts, and then come back like nothing happened. They Came Together is at its funniest when it’s insane, and it can sometimes be a bit of an odd shift for it to come back down to a reasonable assessment of the rom-com’s flaws. Thankfully, even at the movie’s tamest moments, it’s still a full-fledged parody where the cast slips comfortably into their caricatures, but they all have the skill to turn on a dime when Wain wants to shock the audience.
Everyone is great, but this is a showcase for Rudd, and it could also serve as a statement on his typecasting. There’s nothing wrong with his work in Over Her Dead Body, Role Models, Dinner for Schmucks, How Do You Know, and I Love You, Man, but he has terrific range, and these are mostly tame characters. In Wanderlust, his previous film with Wain, it’s a tug-of-war between the affable, mainstream-friendly Rudd (e.g. observing the insanity of the hippies) and the more aggressive, wonderfully weird Rudd (e.g. finding every conceivable way to say “Get on my dick,”). They Came Together reconciles the two by giving him the leeway to lampoon his milquetoast characters and have downright bizarre moments.
Even in the film’s more subdued scenes like having characters openly comment on the genre, it’s in service of creating a nice lull before we’re hit with a big, brash joke. Rom-coms are inherently safe, and so a rom-com parody needs to be dangerous. The Came Together rips away the security blanket of meet-cutes, work-life balance, easily resolved conflict, and grand gestures. Then it does horrible, unspeakable things to that blanket, and proceeds to laugh manically as it burns the security blanket in front of a weeping couple. It’s not a movie for everyone, and it damn well shouldn’t be.