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Entries in They Came Together [2014] (1)

Friday
Jun272014

They Came Together (2014)

A Love Letter to Love Letters to Love Letters

Thank God for idiots. Following a screening of They Came Together at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, co-writer/director David Wain explained that his first cut was a disaster. Test audiences in L.A. didn't get that he and long-time collaborator Michael Showalter had created the Airplane! of romantic comedies--a biting, out-there satire played straight for maximum laughs. Gasps of incredulity echoed throughout the packed Music Box Theatre, and Wain continued:

The confused, negative reaction inspired him to film a series of bookends and interstitials, in which lovebirds Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) recount their sappy, wacky relationship over dinner with friends Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper). These scenes are crucial to both the story and the comedy, and don't at all play like zero-hour filler. They're indispensable, in fact.

It's hard to talk about They Came Together with those who haven't seen it (quick bit of advice: avoid the awful trailer and skip right to the full show). Wain and Showalter's love for romantic comedies (including and especially the awful ones) comes through here, as they skewer every convention the genre has to offer--from over-the-top "klutzy girl" antics to the witty-banter-over-coffee montage.They frame Joel and Molly's story as a spin on You've Got Mail, but fans and foes alike will recognize keenly observed details everywhere that unearth broader clichés they might never have even considered.

Molly owns a New York candy boutique that gives one hundred percent of its profits to charity. She has a sassy and wise black bestie named Wanda (Teyonah Parris), a cheating ex-boyfriend, and dismal relationship prospects. Lurking a few blocks away is CSR, a national candy company that wants to absorb Molly's "business" in its quest for market domination; things get complicated when one of its executives (Joel) falls for the spunky shop owner.

Of course, our love birds can't stand each other at first, and They Came Together plays up the fact that there are no surprises to be found, story-wise, in these kinds of films. What makes it worthwhile is that Wain and his game cast feed Hollywood's generic rom-com hamburger through an R-rated meat grinder to produce the most brain-tickling, gut-busting meal you're likely to see this year. I haven't laughed this hard, this consistently, since the opening night of Borat in 2006 (yes, there was a time when that movie was a comedy revelation).

Like Borat, Wain's film has as much to say about its audience as it does its characters. We've endured these sugary, predictable, female-targeted fantasies for years, and Wain and Showalter are intent on asking us "Why?!?!" The formulas are all the same, with only the actors (sometimes) changing up. It's fitting that Rudd be the star of this satire: he's appeared in so many lame date-movies as to be the treasurer of Girlsnightville (the mayoral race is a dead heat between Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl). For those unfamiliar with Rudd's darker comedic streak, They Came Together will be a (perhaps unwelcome) revelation--especially the scene in which he goes a bit too far in seeking love advice from his eighty-year-old grandmother.

The key to this film's success is that everyone involved works as close to convention as possible, and sometimes that means hamming things up a bit (I'm looking at you--with love--Michael Ian Black). But Poehler and Rudd could easily be transplanted from this movie into a dozen others without missing a beat. They're sweet, attractive, funny, and have terrific chemistry. Wain and Showalter tilt the angle just slightly to reveal the darker insecurities and urges bubbling beneath their peppy exteriors. 

This is what differentiates They Came Together from the Mad Magazine-style send-ups like Date Movie and the other (thankfully) extinct "Movie" movies. Wain and Showalter start with a familiar template and dozens of movie tropes, and weave them seamlessly into an actual story with a plot that doesn't rely on pop-culture cut-aways to create laughs. You won't see either lead, for example, doing a scene dressed as Katniss and Peta from The Hunger Games. Theirs is a tradtitional rom-com love story, which just happens to take place in an utterly nutty universe. It's the precise, loving brand of roast that Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers pulled off in Airplane! and the first two Naked Gun films, and which many clueless imitators have been chasing for decades.

But we should expect nothing less from Wain, who has built a solid career by tilting the axis of well-worn comedy sub-genres to get at the heart of undeservedly vaunted audience bait (the man-child coming-of-age story in Role Models, the Yuppies-finding-the-true-meaning-of-life in Wanderlust--and, of course, Wet Hot American Summer and MTV's The State). On a just planet, the millions of battered-spouse audience members who swore off Michael Bay after the last Transformers movie would seek out Wain's film instead of giving a dime to Age Extinction.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm sure that movie is abundant with dinobots, explosions, and enough American flags to let Mark Wahlberg bungee jump off Opimus Prime's junkticon--but I guarantee every adult who comes stumbling out of those screenings will wish they'd gotten something more from their entertainment dollars. Those of us who've seen They Came Together know that "something more" first-hand: severe stomach cramps from prolonged, uncontrollable laughter.

Note: I reviewed They Came Together in May, fresh off its opening-night presentation at the Chicago Critics Film Festival (which Wain attended). I had the chance to see it again a couple weeks ago, and it's just as hilarious the second time around. For a real treat, see this with someone you love, who loves romantic comedies--and watch them squirm in recognition as Wain and Showalter surgically skewer guilty-pleasure conventions for eighty sublime minutes!