David Wain and His Parodies of Exuberance
There are many ways to go about parodying a form, however from Mel Brooks’ smug send-ups to Nathan Fielder’s biting critique of the types of non-fiction programming available on modern TV, most of these attempts hardly come from a place of love. With Brooks and his ilk such as the Zucker/Abraham team, nothing is treated as too sacred to be made a mockery of with a oft-insensitive joke. Fielder is so mean-spirited in his treatment of the laymen he claims to attempt to be helping that my tricks-averse girlfriend cringed her way through one episode of Nathan For You with me before shooting me a look of severe disapproval and shuttling off to watch an episode of Parks and Recreation on her iPad.
An exception to this is David Wain, whose newest feature, They Came Together, starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, is a sharp and specific spoof of the very worst type of romantic comedy. As I watched this film from the balcony of a packed house at BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, the word that kept coming to mind in reference to Wain’s direction and storytelling was exuberance. David Wain’s parody is a parody of exuberance. He is relentlessly positive and stays out of the dark and the smug in a way that gives his films an accessibility and therefore a propensity to cultishness, that his peers in parody lack.
Wain has made a career as the directorial vessel through which the comedic ideas of famed early 90s sketch group The State flows. Beginning with that show, Wain, along with collaborators Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Trugio, Thomas Lennon, and more have made established a style of comedy performance that treads in enthusiasm rather than tongue-in-cheek. In his move to feature film direction, Wain has always created a structure that allows him to stick to the type of joke-telling and pacing in which he is clearly most comfortable — sketch.
For his films, Wain’s creates a frame, or what could potentially also be called a game, within which he can tell a series of smaller, bit-driven stories that loosely add up to a larger story about a larger theme. For example, the game in Wet Hot American Summer is the closed environment of the summer camp. Wain sets up the structure of “summer camp film” and populates it with the settings and characters one would find within that. From there he can tell many stories (read: sketches) that don’t necessarily need to interact but only exist within the created world (read: game) of the summer camp. The language of summer camp is such a universally American theme that it is no wonder WHAS is the cult film of my generation and even those who did not enjoy the film still prove keenly aware of it’s indicators (Highly recommend following this link to a classic Roger Ebert negative review).
This mode of operating holds true in The Ten, with the vignette structure anchored around Paul Rudd’s story allowing for ten discreet shorter pieces; Wanderlust, with the hippie retreat slotting in for the summer camp; and on television, TV’s Children’s Hospital, which can play on the structural tropes of the hospital drama but still can exist the finite and coded narrative world of the hospital. This is where They Came Together has its greatest challenge. The game Wain sets up in this one is a full-on spoof of the romantic comedy genre — he is ostensibly making a terrible rom-com on purpose — however, what he seems to be lacking is the closed world that unites his storytelling and keeps his bits focused. The movie (and Wain himself in his intro at BAM) works hard to play on the idea that, as is true in many rom-coms, New York is a character in the movie. The film takes place on a stylized Upper West Side, and it seems Wain shot Brooklyn-as-backlot to get this look. However, unlike the previously mentioned works the film does not try very hard to locate itself specifically within its setting, or maybe New York and its lack of universally specific narrative codes does not serve the same purpose “camp” or “hospital” does.
As a result, Wain creates a joke-telling highwire act that is incredibly hard to pull off. He is essentially creating a movie that has one thing to spoof and a structure that forces him to operate at an insanely high joke per minute rate. By law of averages it makes it very hard for all or even most of the jokes to hit. Early on in the film, his hit rate is massively high — I was laughing hard and consistently for the first 30 minutes — but as the film settled into itself, I did not find myself clinging to any element of the plot, setting, or characters like one does when watching something like WHAS. Even at a lean 83 minutes runtime, the jokes are bound to repeat themselves and while Wain certainly does heighten (a familiar dramatic actor shows up wielding a sword in the last act), he seems to flounder slightly when forced to go broader rather than more specific, as a more fully explored and fleshed out setting would allow.
It should be added that Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, playing their rom-com central couple stereotypes as straight as possible, are terrific and charming in a way only they could pull off, and Wain’s familiar stable of supporting plays, especially Christopher Meloni, do strong work. The energy They Came Together has coming out of the gate is exuberant and infectious and carries the early portion of the film. By the end, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this film might have been brilliant conceit for a sketch but perhaps lacked the structure of his previous work to tell many sketches within a setting-defined theme.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.