"They Came Together" means to make fun of romantic comedies the way "Airplane!" goofed on disaster movies and the "Naked Gun" films spoofed detective flicks. The result is actually more in line with Gus Van Sant’s ambitious but ill-advised shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho."
Director and co-writer David Wain and his usual band of comic pals essentially have made a straight-up romantic comedy. Certainly this could not have been the plan. Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter, who gave teenage sex comedies similar (and superior) treatment in 2001’s "Wet Hot American Summer," obviously intend to parody the clichés and formulas that make so many films in the genre seem so interchangeable.
It’s got all the moments and beats you’d expect—the meet-cute, the instant hatred that turns to flirtation, the perky montage of trying on clothes, the contrived misunderstanding that keeps the couple apart and finally—mercifully—the mad dash to a wedding for some very public, last-minute I-love-yous. But simply recreating what we know to be hackneyed and safe doesn’t suddenly make it hilarious and surprising. There has to be a spin to it; there has to be some innovation.
Anyone who has seen a movie starring Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson can recognize what’s going on and find a chuckle here and there. But mostly, the results are shockingly unfunny and sadly lifeless, especially given the wealth of comic talent involved.
Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler star as the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan types at the film’s center, recounting how they met and fell in love over dinner with an underused Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper. The latter couple is meant to serve as our stand-ins, trying to remain politely charmed by the increasingly inane details they’re hearing in extended flashbacks.
The core of the plot plays like a knowingly cutesy version of "You’ve Got Mail," but "They Came Together" also features recognizable rom-com nuggets ranging from "Pillow Talk" to "When Harry Met Sally..." Rudd’s Joel works for a giant, soulless candy corporation. Poehler’s Molly owns a neighborhood candy shop that’s "charming and adorable and impossible not to like," as she puts it. But wouldn’t you know? Joel’s company is trying to run Molly’s store out of business. Can their affection withstand such stress?
And so we watch as they show up for a Halloween party dressed in the same costume and immediately clash. (This is also where the film takes a painful, extended detour for a discussion of whether Christopher Meloni soiled himself in his superhero outfit. Spoiler alert: He did.) We watch them fall for each other over books and coffee in an idyllic version of New York City—which is like a character itself in their relationship, we’re told repeatedly, when such a convention should be clear.
Throughout this familiar process, the jokes are either annoyingly repetitive or overly spelled out for us. It’s obvious what they’re parodying—the rom-com is an incredibly common type of clichéd film; its tropes are well-known and well-worn. Still, it’s not enough for Molly to be adorably klutzy; the dialogue has to inform us that she’s adorably klutzy in addition to showing her knocking over a bunch of her belongings in her bedroom before tumbling down a flight of stairs on the way to work.
Joel can’t just be commitment-phobic; he has to talk about how commitment-phobic he is with his regular basketball buddies (Ken Marino, Jack McBrayer, Kenan Thompson and Jason Mantzoukas). And those guys can’t just obviously represent different points of view on the matter, they have to articulate the fact that they represent different points of view on the matter.
One joke went on for so long I thought something was wrong with the film—like it was stuck or something. I won’t bore you with the details here, but it has to do with a bartender uttering the phrases "Tell me about it" and "You can say that again" over and over as Joel drowns his sorrows.
"They Came Together" clicks sporadically, though, when it takes a chance on totally absurd flights of fancy—a weird date Molly has with her priggish accountant (Ed Helms), for example, or an awkwardly close moment between Joel and his grandma (Lynn Cohen).
Even at 83 minutes, "They Came Together" feels like its conceit has been stretched thin. But a lot of these folks (Wain, Showalter, Marino, Erinn Haynes) are also involved with the series "Children’s Hospital" on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup, which sharply parodies the soapy doctor drama. Those episodes last just 15 minutes—which is probably just the right amount of time for such scattered, sketch-based laughs.