They Came Together

In this reviewer’s not-so-humble opinion, the movie genre that is most deserving of mockery is the one that least often gets it: the Hollywood romantic comedy. Horror spoofs are a dime a dozen, and self-aware action movies have become almost as common as straightforward ones. So why aren’t there more films like “They Came Together,” a spot-on takedown of rom-com cliches that makes it impossible to ever take another Katherine Heigl movie seriously? (Perhaps I have answered my own question: the Katherine Heigl lobby is too powerful to allow it.)

“They Came Together” came together through writers David Wain (who also directed) and Michael Showalter, expert-level satirists who made “Wet Hot American Summer” and once comprised two-thirds (with Michael Ian Black) of the absurdist comedy troupe Stella. This information alone will set some comedy nerds’ funny bones a-tingling. Quite a few “Wet Hot American Summer” alumni appear in “They Came Together,” along with several of the comedy friends Wain and Showalter have made in the interim. The result is a large cast of improv-trained performers who are among the funniest Americans currently working. If anyone’s going to tear apart romantic comedies, it should be these people.

Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd star as Molly and Joel, typical rom-com New Yorkers — which is to say, upscale white people with fabulous apartments and unlimited finances — who, as the movie begins, have already been together for some time. Over dinner, they tell the story of how they met to friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), acknowledging up front that “it’s just like a movie!”

Molly owns a little candy shop. Joel works for the Candy Systems & Research company, a conglomerate that pushes little candy shops out of business. Joel is hung up on an ex-girlfriend, Tiffany (Cobie Smulders), who isn’t right for him. (He says, “I love you.” She says, “And I admire your spirit.”) Molly and Joel meet, clash, fall in love, break up, participate in some montages, and get back together via a public declaration of love. We’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, but you knew those things were going to happen. And the movie knows that you know.

Rudd and Poehler are ridiculously likable, separately and together, both full of infectious energy and positivity. This is not an “affectionate” satire of rom-coms — it’s fiery, unrestrained, and devastating — but Poehler and Rudd’s all-smiles demeanor prevents it from becoming an angry screed. The acting style across the board is exaggerated and melodramatic, as in a comedy sketch, and it’s applied so uniformly that you’d think the cast was an established troupe who work together all the time. (Many of them do, actually. In addition to those already mentioned, we’ve got Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Meloni, Kenan Thompson, Ken Marino, and Adam Scott.)

When it’s not being scathingly satirical, the film revels in absurdity that borders on the surreal. It’s in the little things — like someone making the “check, please” gesture to a waiter while saying, “Another bottle of wine,” or Jack McBrayer playing basketball dressed in a cardigan, or someone else in that game yelling “Swish!” after every missed shot — with none of these contradictions explained or remarked upon. In other scenes, there are big, unmissable sight gags like the spoofs of yesteryear (think “Airplane!”), including one where a waiter is said to have “a pole up his a**” and it turns out to be literally true.

My one complaint is that there are four or five brief scenes that feel rushed and undercooked, with barely an attempt at humor. That’s understandable, sometimes even necessary, in a conventional comedy set among real people in the real world, where scenes that do nothing more than advance the plot or establish characters may be sprinkled in among the big comedic set pieces. But in a farce whose only purpose is to produce laughs, where plausible characterizations and story details don’t matter, there’s no reason not to go for the chuckles at all times (especially when the movie is only 83 minutes long anyway). Another round of punch-ups on the screenplay might have made this a classic, whereas instead we have to settle for something that’s merely one of the funniest movies of the year. Oh well!

B+ (1 hr., 23 min.; R, abundant profanity and vulgarity, a scene of strong sexuality (played for laughs, not titillation).)

Originally published