Wednesday, July 2, 2014

They Came Together

Grade: 33/C-

Early in They Came Together, a bartender tells Paul Rudd, in so many words, that he looks like shit. Rudd responds, “You can say that again.” The bartender repeats the exact same phrase. Rudd says, “Tell me about it.” The bartender repeats himself again. This exchange goes back and forth between the two for a few minutes, starting out funny, then becoming exhausting, then ending at hilarious. In this scene, director David Wain and his co-writer Michael Showalter perfectly replicate a rom-com cliché, then stretch it to the point of absurdity, with neither actor acknowledging the ridiculousness of the situation. It’s a great scene. It’s also one of the only gags in They Came Together that made me laugh.

It’s not from lack of trying. Wain and company’s romantic-comedy parody always seems like it should be funny. In a hoary framing device, Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) recount the story of how they fell in love to another couple (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper). She ran a quirky indie candy shop; he worked for a Big Candy corporation that threatened to shut her down. They hated each other before they fell in love, only to find that love was harder than it looks.

That’s a perfect setup to skewer the genre, much like Wain spoofed oversexed 80s teen comedies like Meatballs and SpaceCamp in his cult film Wet Hot American Summer. Wain populates They Came Togther with a number of alums from the earlier film, from stars (Rudd and Poehler) to supporting players (Christopher Meloni, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino), all of whom are fiercely committed to taking the inanity of their archetypical characters one step further. He also nails the high-key lighting and upper-class New York apartment set decoration that typifies the genre, so at first glance it might easily pass for the real thing.

But there’s something off in the execution of They Came Together. Wain’s earlier film had its actors play their teen stereotypes with the right mixture of comic exaggeration and straight-faced dedication. By contrast, They Came Together constantly acknowledges that the characters are behaving like they’re in a movie. Instead of turning Rudd’s fear of commitment into a outsized version of the real thing, the characters talk openly and self-consciously about his fear of commitment. Even when the film is ostensibly playing it straight-faced, as in a scene where the two bond because of a shared love for fiction (“no one else loves fiction!”), the tone is off, feeling smarmy and self-congratulatory rather than farcical.

But even if Wain’s film hadn’t come off as so pleased with itself, its aim would still be too broadly-focused to really hit. The strength of Wet Hot American Summer was its send-up of such a minor yet specific subgenre, which made it bizarrely affectionate and personal amidst the lampooning and out-and-out strangeness. They Came Together rarely feels half as free or inspired, and it deals with such a well-known and frequently mocked genre that it can’t help but feel redundant. It’s at once recognizably a film from the creator of a beloved cult film and a movie that misses the appeal of its predecessor entirely.

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