“I admire your spirit”
It’s one thing to satirize the romantic comedy genre and a whole other to literally break it down into its myriad tropes to build a story around them without transforming their generic designations into fully formed characters. But that’s exactly what David Wain (co-writer/director) and Michael Showalter (co-writer) did with They Came Together. It’s so transparent in its commentary that I was surprised they gave leading male Joel’s (Paul Rudd) brother (Max Greenfield‘s Jake) a name. The two men are so invested in calling each other “Big Brother” and “Little Brother” without a hint of irony that I hoped they’d stick to those labels. There’s the rub, though: the conceit is hilarious, but it cannot sustain without specificity. And filling the gaps only works to undercut its goals.
At a certain point Wain and Showalter must make their movie into exactly what it is they are poking fun at so names and motivations are introduced regardless. What arrives to distract us from this fact is a strain of absolute absurdity that goes beyond the genre into silly laughter. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it proves so crazy that it delivers the funniest bits to make us wonder if they should have just made an over-the-top rom/com without the distillation. We’re given two distinct films as a result—one to appreciate on an intellectual level that rises above the content and another that revels in the content’s juvenility for lowest common denominator gags. Suddenly they begin competing and we choose sides.
I also didn’t love the bookending device of Joel and Molly (Amy Poehler) telling their story to another couple at dinner (Ellie Kemper‘s Karen and Bill Hader‘s Kyle). What makes it so awkward is that it appears these two duos have never met and yet here they are sitting for a fancy meal. The second couple is constructed simply to cut back to when in need of comic relief because the main plot starts lagging. It works in the extremes (a cut and paste sequence that never ends between Rudd and John Rue’s bartender proving “Family Guy”-level excruciating and just as funny) but falters in the quiet moments (Kemper explaining to Hader what’s happening despite our already knowing just so Rudd can admit it doesn’t really matter).
Smart or stupid, They Came Together does have enough great comedic moments to render the whole a must-see for lovers of the genre. Whether it works in concert shouldn’t belittle its successes even if the best example was shown in the trailer—Joel and Molly bumping into each other at a bookstore while searching for “fiction books”. Thankfully its context between the bumpy roads before and after keeps it fresh. A montage sequence of Poehler trying on different outfits with best friend Wanda (Teyonah Parris) for no other reason then the film needing a montage to mock is great; a basketball game with womanizer Tommy (Ken Marino) and family man Teddy (Kenan Thompson) allowing Oliver (Jack McBrayer) to declare Joel a mix of both is smart.
But how many of those “A-ha” moments can you really take before the joke becomes boring? I’ll admit the answer is more than expected, but 83-minutes still proves too long. Halve that run-time and this thing could be fantastic, but who would care? Sadly today’s world doesn’t watch mid-length work: if it isn’t long enough for a theatrical release or short enough to watch on YouTube in the five-minute gap your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder it doesn’t exist. So Wain and Showalter must infuse their trademarked sense of humor to keep things moving and pad their central device. If that means having Christopher Meloni defecate in his clothes or Jason Mantzoukas hang from a skyscraper window without ever mentioning either incident again, so be it.
Honestly, as long as it’s funny no one will really mind. I’d still rather the absurdity work within the premise such as Joel and ex-girlfriend Tiffany (Cobie Smulders) going all sorts of insane to send-up the industry’s over-the-top sex appeal (culminating in one of the better “real world” asides from Hader), but random party guests leaving a dump on their host’s bathroom floor is wild enough to succeed on its own. Add a pandering score to punch up every big moment Hollywood speech and a slew of cameos spanning Lynn Cohen, Norah Jones, Michael Shannon, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and you can’t help but appreciate the intent. It’s a foregone conclusion that some gags (Zak Orth with a pole up his backside) just won’t end up working.
At the very least Rudd and Poehler are at the top of their games to have us invest in them as clichés when the rest devolves into idiocy. The way they call after the other longingly only to be too late, uttering a dejected “Shit,” is endearing. Their “You’re attractive, smart, and exactly the type of person I’d love to start a relationship with if only you didn’t have such a bad attitude” is perfectly-suited to the trope of needing conflict despite audiences knowing the connection will win out before long. They are so good at delivering stock lines with authentic emotional-filled comedic timing that you wish Wain and Showalter were able to get the satire angle just a bit more self-contained to truly shine.
 Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) in THEY CAME TOGETHER.
 From left to right: Joel (Paul Rudd, left), Brenda (Melanie Lynskey, left center), Bob (Jason Mantzoukas, center), Roland (Christopher Meloni, right center) and Molly (Amy Poehler, far right) in THEY CAME TOGETHER.
 Jake (Max Greenfield) in THEY CAME TOGETHER.