They Came Together strongly reminded me of a scene in 1996’s tragically ignored Steven Soderbergh-directed experimental comedy Schizopolis. In the scene, a character and his wife converse wholly in Mad Libs without the blanks filled in. “Generic greeting!” he says as he walks through the door. “Generic greeting returned!” she chirps back. Their utterly standardized statements demonstrate the hollowness of their relationship, how communication between them has atrophied to mere formalities.
Almost every single line of dialogue in They Came Together sounds like it came from any one of a thousand standard romantic comedies. This is entirely on purpose, and every word is delivered with full-bodied sincerity just slightly tinged with knowingness. The best example of this is a scene in which main characters Molly (Amy Poehler) and Joel (Paul Rudd) meet at a bookstore and bond through their mutual love of “fiction books.” This is the movie’s approach to parody at its best. Like Schizopolis, it riffs on sameness, although it’s working with genre instead of psychology. At its worst, this joke gets beaten flat on the ground.
Molly is a clumsy free spirit who runs an independent candy shop, and has been raising her son alone since her ex-husband went to jail. Joel is a straight-laced cog in a giant candy corporation that’s looking to shut down Molly’s shop, but underneath, he’s a sensitive guy who wants to follow his dreams. The two meet cute at a party, but initially dislike one another despite an attraction that they can’t quite explain. Then they meet again and discover that they both love fiction (Molly breathlessly exclaims that she’s never met anyone else who likes fiction before), and soon they begin a relationship. But every conceivable obstacle stands in the way of them being together, including former partners who want them back, friction with her parents, and the commitment of Joel’s company to take over of the candy shop.
Starting with their cult sketch series The State, director/writer David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter have been known for their brand of straight-faced but absurdist comedy. This has been best distilled in the classic Wet Hot American Summer, which sees a major cast and crew reunion in this film. But Wet Hot American Summer, while loosely a parody of summer camp films, mainly uses its setting as an excuse for a string of supremely silly gags and sequences. They Came Together is much more bound to its plot, which requires an attachment to the characters in order to work. The characters are by design accumulations of various rom com tropes, however, so that never forms.
The movie still yanked a lot of good laughs out of me, and with fair regularity. But almost all of my favorite bits are the ones in which the parody angle is dropped and the cast and writers simply commit to ridiculousness. One scene has Joel’s boss (Christopher Meloni, further proving that he really needs to work more in comedy) in a bathroom, struggling to remove a spandex superhero costume before his bladder gives out. Another features an emotionally charged confrontation between Joel and his brother (Max Greenfield) over how Joel sold a beloved childhood tire swing. My biggest guffaw came from a simple sight gag during the obligatory climactic wedding scene. The purposefully cliched script wears out after a while, the generic tongue-in-cheek dialogue rarely more than fitfully amusing.
Interestingly, the stock romantic comedy elements that They Came Together affectionately jabs haven’t appeared much since the mid-2000s or so, at least not successfully. The Nora Ephron / James L. Brooks / Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan era is over. Wet Hot American Summer could hardly be said to have been timely with its own parody, but that movie gets away with it thanks to genius humor. This film needed more of what’s great about Wain, Showalter and the gang: less story and more random-yet-accurate explanations of Pokemon statistics.