THEY CAME TOGETHER * 1 / 2
Starring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Cobie Smulders, Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader. Screenplay by Michael Showalter and David Wain. Directed by David Wain.
Chalk this one up to beating a dead horse, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking these days to take shots at the prefab phoniness of Hollywood romantic comedies. I didn’t even bother to go see whatever that Cameron Diaz thing was that came out a few months ago, but I doubt you’ll find a lot of folks clamoring for this once-ubiquitous formula to finally get taken down a peg. After all, we don’t have Meg Ryan to kick around anymore, and there’s not much satirists can do to the genre that Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl haven’t already done worse.
Yet for whatever reason, a good deal of talented people have gotten together to try just that with They Came Together, a smug, self-aware running commentary on the moribund form from director David Wain and his longtime sketch comedy writing partner Michael Showalter. Reportedly, these two originally intended the film as a follow-up to their erratic, occasionally inspired, 2001 eighties summer camp-sploitation send-up Wet Hot American Summer, which famously flopped on its initial release before finding a second life on home video and the midnight circuit, probably because it plays way better when you’re stoned.
This decade-and-change delay in production might explain why They Came Together goes after such fresh, culturally relevant targets as Forget Paris and You’ve Got Mail. Borrowing its structure from the former and a plot from the latter (itself a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, a film too wonderful and perfect to be mentioned again in such poor company) Wain’s picture stars Amy Poehler as the proprietor of an Upper West Side candy shop so dedicated to her customers that she just gives everything away for free. Rudd works for an evil candy conglomerate opening a massive mega-store across the street, so it’s hate at first sight when they both arrive at a Halloween party wearing the same Benjamin Franklin costume (okay, I did chuckle a bit at that). But these cute kids are meant for each other, if they can only muddle through a lot of contrived misunderstandings along the way.
Tardy as They Came Together may seem, parody shouldn’t necessarily have a sell-by date. Blazing Saddles, Airplane, (the first, non-toxic) Austin Powers and even Wet Hot American Summer made hay goofing on movies that were already ancient relics by the time they were released. But those pictures had something this one is sorely lacking: jokes.
The film feels fatuous and irritatingly complacent, with supporting characters just standing around announcing their purpose in Rudd and Poehler’s story; everybody’s calling attention to the barrage of familiar clichés without doing much of anything to subvert them. I suppose this probably sounded quite daring fifteen years ago when we were all first discovering “meta,” but watching an entire movie that takes place inside of air quotes is a crushing bore. Wain and Showalter try to spice things up with occasional, jarringly vulgar non-sequiturs, but improv-ish asides like Christopher Meloni shitting himself or Rudd groping his grandmother’s ass only add to the slapdash nature of the proceedings.
It’s a shame, because Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are such hugely likeable performers, and Wain has proven that he can work quite well within formula constrictions. (His 2008 Role Models might be my favorite mainstream studio comedy of recent years.) It’s impossible to watch They Came Together without wishing all these gifted folks would do something to try and revive the romantic comedy, instead of just snickering over its grave.
Oh yeah, and the title is a double entendre. Get it?