Mark Reviews Movies

They Came Together


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Wain

Cast: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Cobie Smulders, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey, Ed Helms, Michael Ian Black

MPAA Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Running Time: 1:23

Release Date: 6/27/14 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 29, 2014

The conventions of romantic comedies aren't pieces of low-hanging fruit. They are pieces of fruit that have fallen to ground, been picked, and been placed in a decorative basket. The whole package has been delivered right to our front door with a bow on top and card inside that explains how this fruit was on the ground, picked, placed in a decorative basket, and delivered right to our front door. As a bonus, look: Someone already paid for the whole thing.

The point is that one doesn't have to do much to mock these conventions. They have become self-explanatory after decades of seeing the same plot points, characters, and other clichés over and over and over and over again. We know the mismatched characters that meet cute are destined to be together, and there is no limit to the amount of conflict—no matter how tiny or severe—that won't be exploited in order to keep or force them apart until just before the credits roll.

If you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all, and it has gotten to the point that even romantic comedies have started to reference themselves. Some romantic comedies have started to use the high expectations a character has about romance as a point of conflict to delay that character from actually committing to romance. Out of what have those high expectations been formed? Why, they come from a lifetime of watching romantic comedies, of course. Characters in a romantic comedy who have watched plenty of romantic comedies end up trapped in a situation straight out of a romantic comedy, and despite their knowledge of how the whole contraption works, they end up doing the same, old things, because, after all, it's still a romantic comedy.

All of this is a long-winded but necessary way of saying that romantic comedy as a genre has been standing on a cliff. Behind it is the same old stuff; in front of it is the likely terrifying and potentially exciting freefall of post-modernism. Filmmakers—especially those in Hollywood—are scared to make the plunge, because, even on the cliff, they know it's only a few steps backwards to return to safer ground. There's also the inescapable fact that, after taking the dive into post-modernism, it's only a matter of time before the genre discovers what's at the end of the drop. Now, along comes They Came Together, and it's a film that gives that tired genre a long-delayed but well-deserved push.

The screenplay by Michael Showalter and director David Wain goes for the easy jokes, but it does so after doing plenty of homework. They've taken apart the most obvious elements of the genre and reassembled them into something utterly surreal. Here, for example, we have the male romantic hero's friends identifying themselves as the specific types they represent—the womanizer, the romantic, and the happily married man—and talking to their buddy like they're participants in a Dramatic Theory 101 course, dissecting how each of them is really part of the hero's own personality. All the while, they're playing an odd variation of a pick-up basketball game in which points seem to be assigned by how badly a shot misses the net.

The basketball game might seem like a non sequitur gag, of which the film contains plenty (including a literally stuck-up waiter), but it's not. It's another convention of sorts—an excuse for these friends to get together, show camaraderie, and talk about the more important business at hand. The game doesn't matter to them, so they proudly announce they've scored after the ball goes flying over the backboard.

This is how deeply Showalter and Wain have dug into this material. It's not only the big things that are targets for ridicule but also the little details. We know that Joel (Paul Rudd, whose mugging for the camera is a brilliant form of parody unto itself) and Molly (Amy Poehler, who plays even the most ridiculous situations—such as a makeover montage filled with preposterous fashion choices—straight to great effect) are going to Meet Cute. They bump into each other on the street while on the way to the same Halloween party, and Wain stages the big moment in such a way that at least one of the characters is going out of his or her way in order to do so.

They're telling their story, which is "like a cheesy romantic comedy," over dinner with another couple played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper. They politely laugh as Joel and Molly tell about how clumsy Molly is and how an oblivious Joel was in a disastrous relationship with an unfaithful girlfriend (Cobie Smulders)—oblivious, as in she's cheating on him, quite literally, right behind his back. Like any sensible audience observing a romantic comedy, Hader and Kemper's characters grow more and more impatient as they begin to realize that everything in their story is leading to a foregone conclusion.

The inevitable couple starts, of course, as enemies: Joel works for a big candy conglomerate that is taking over independent candy stores in New York City, and Molly owns an independent candy store in New York City. Each spends a lot of oxygen explaining how the other would be a perfect candidate for a romantic relationship, if only there weren't an external conflict forcing them to stay apart. Some of these, like the political beliefs of Molly's parents, should be genuine points of concern that, of course, get glossed over by rose-tinted glasses.

They bond, naturally, over the pettiest of things. They both like coffee. Molly is stunned to learn that Joel also enjoys reading "fiction books," as if no one else in the history of the world has ever read and liked a work of fiction. Molly tosses out an obvious piece of foreshadowing without any context. The extraneous conflicts mount and mount until a hilarious climax that throws in one after another, just to keep the lovers apart for every second possible.

No joke is too dumb, but that's because the film is intelligent enough to know that the butt of its joke has earned that kind of humor. They Came Together is smart and incisive satire of the scorched-earth variety.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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