Straight-ahead comedies aimed at adults occupy a weird space in the cultural landscape. It’s not that they’re invisible exactly – 2014’s 22 Jump Street stands out, and even The Grand Budapest Hotel essentially fits the bill, if mediated through Wes Anderson’s whimsical (and no doubt vintage) Russian nesting doll aesthetic. But everyone seems to (tacitly or otherwise) agree that comedies are fundamentally lesser entities. Discussions of the year’s movies tend to focus on the spectacles of summer (usually action movies and comic book universe installments these days) and awards-season contenders (biopics, 12-years-in-the-making auteur experiments, handsomely mounted yet serious interrogations of Ar-r-r-r-r-t). A movie like David Wain and Michael Showalter’s They Came Together easily slips through the cracks.
That’s, for lack of a better word, stupid.
Wain and Showalter, probably best known to general audiences for their masterpiece Wet, Hot American Summer, work in a particular kind of reference-heavy comedy that doesn’t always land for everyone. (The in-joke context is key: it’s legitimately hard, for me, to imagine enjoying They Came Together as the first movie you ever saw.) They also like stupid jokes, like portraying a guy who “has a pole up his ass” actually walking around with a pole up his ass, occasionally knocking things over.
They Came Together has unfortunate bits like that, but its jokes hit more than they miss … and in its best moments it’s fucking hilarious. Pairing Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd – recently voted the two most charming, funny, and adorable people on Earth in a poll I conducted, of myself – seems like the sort of thing that would’ve received more attention, but oh well. It’s the kind of film that will find its audience eventually.
Wain and Showalter take aim at every rom-com convention they can think of. Poehler’s character has an appropriately improbable job (sole proprietor of a candy shoppe). She’s aided by her sassy black friend and employee, who constantly thanks Poehler for relying on her (maybe my favorite touch). Rudd, of course, is a corporate raider for a candy conglomerate who want to open a storefront across the street, gleefully crushing the little guy under the leadership of SVU’s Christopher Meloni. The two star/candy-crossed lovers meet-cute (and angry) at a Halloween party, where they’re both inscrutably dressed as Ben Franklin.
A framing device establishes that their whole story is told over dinner to another couple (played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), who grow increasingly bored with their clichés and keep trying to leave but cannot. (Is this a reference to The Exterminating Angel or do I just want it to be?) Tired tropes are evoked and skewered – “New York is kind of a character in our story, really!” – and Rudd and Poehler make the most of every joke in the script. (There are many; not all of them are the best.) The two leads are the film’s undeniable appeal, at least for me – there is basically nothing funnier than Paul Rudd smiling charmingly while saying the wrong thing, or the contrast between Amy Poehler’s pasted-on, fake-confident grin and the expressions she conveys with her eyes. Like I said, they’re just ridiculously amusing goofballs, and it suits the material perfectly.
I won’t spoil the plot, partly because that would be rude and partly because it would be impossible, if you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy. It’s the kind of movie where Poehler announces at the start where people should go look for her if she ever flees from a climactic romantic scene. So helpful!
They Came Together won’t show up on too many best-of lists, but it’s easily the most accomplished meta rom-com spoof of 2014 starring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and everyone else you’ve ever seen. It’s smart, biting, and the performances are top-notch. Especially New York, which is actually kind of a character itself.