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Friday, June 27th, 2014

'They Came Together': Beating a Dead Horse with Efficiency and Spite

they-came-togetherMade by smart, talented comedy people and starring smart, talented comedy people, They Came Together is a dumb movie. It's built on dumb ideas and executed as dumbly as possible, and that's the point. Slickly directly by David Wain and starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, They Came Together is a self-assuredly dumb parody of the romantic comedy, intent on skewering the genre's worst instincts mainly by reproducing them in a biting tone dripping with mockery. To be clear, this movie doesn't give romcoms a good-natured roasting — it's straight up mean. Nearly every scene features a clever riff on the familiar beats of a romcom formula, and even when Wain's absurdist sensibility closest to his work in Wet Hot American Summer actively alienates, it's still a fascinating exercise in dissecting a genre.

The non-romcom rejects any sort of emotional investment in its characters — because they're not characters, really. Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) reek of artificiality as genre types propped up by the only minimal charms of their actors, since even they aren't trying to draw you in. Poehler and Rudd commit themselves entirely to the movie's self-conscious tone, meaning they've traded their usual magnetism and — as Rudd especially has shown in romcoms in recent years — their capacity to inject specificity and authenticity into otherwise broad roles, for a suffocating degree of twee.

If it seems like Joel and Molly and just about everything else in the movie have been dialed to insufferable levels of meet-cuteness, it's all intentional: Co-writers Wain and Michael Showalter attack the genre by fully immersing the audience in the romcom's most cringe-worthy elements, exaggerating every available hackneyed trope and melodramatic plot point well past toleration.

Accordingly, Molly survives on sunshine and kindness as the effervescent and extremely klutzy owner of an independent candy shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side, just across the street from the proposed location of a new corporate candy center whose launch nice guy Joel is spearheading. There's no heartfelt email correspondence between these two before they meet, but the framework of You've Got Mail allows this movie to fully exploit the ridiculousness of the often contrived conflicts that keep a romcom couple apart. The change from books to candy sold in Molly's shop around the corner pays a respectful nod to the earnest entries in the genre (Nora Ephron was always more literary than the empty sugary calories of recent romcoms) and firmly plants the world of the movie outside ours, one of many clever choices highlighting the unrelatability and sometimes near non-existence of many romcom characters’ lives as shown.

Likewise, Joel and Molly each are privileged with closely-orbiting groups of friends, family, employees, and bosses all acutely invested in the status of their love lives. When Joel discovers his distant girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) sleeping with his work rival (Michael Ian Black), ready to step in and offer advice is an array of quirky side characters, all of whom are the most cliched versions of their types. Joel's buddies, played by Kenan Thompson, Ken Marino, Jack McBrayer, and Jason Mantzoukas, each verbally outline their own narrative functions and which perspectives on love they represent, while other layer-less stock characters like Molly's protective sister (Zandy Hartig) and Joel's directionless younger brother (Max Greenfield) are sounding boards and little else. Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader appear as a couple out to dinner with Joel and Molly in a frame narrative, there simply to call out the absurdity of how movie-like their relationship story is.

The incredibly game cast that also features Christopher Meloni, Ed Helms, and Melanie Lynskey give their best renditions of people as surfaces. They lean purposefully too hard into Wain and Showalter's dialogue, a mix of subtext made text and inane idioms only found in movies, reducing conversations to their dumbest, simplest versions of interactions. The stylized dialogue succeeds in giving most actors the chance to play an over-the-top, only-in-the-movies version of a human being, and everyone seems to relish the opportunity.

While the criticisms the movie levels against romcoms seem entirely fair — lazy writing, unrealistic situations, underdeveloped characters — its scathing tone occasionally feels misplaced or at least out of touch. Wain and Showalter aren't speaking truth to the power of a thriving genre so much as picking over the rotting corpse of a kind of movie that evolved or fell out of favor years ago. Much of the territory it covers has already been derided and more incisively in think pieces and sketches, from the token black friend to the best friend to the manic pixie dream girl to the run to the airport, and when the movie includes but fails to exploit or subvert many of these tropes, it reads as a missed opportunity.

They Came points and laughs at the emotional manipulation and emptiness of romantic comedies, but by firmly following each cliched beat of the formula while making no attempt to draw any emotional investment from its audience, the movie reproduces that hollowness. Its saving grace may be its golden throwaway jokes: quick, high-impact non-sequiturs tucked into most sequences (Meloni's attempt to avoid pooping in a Halloween costume should be paid special attention). It's a shame that those sketch-like moments don't contribute to any greater critique of the philosophy or messaging within romantic comedies; the romantic subplots of Wain's raunchier comedies had more to say than They Came, whose most coherent point-of-view might be summed up as 'This is dumb,' said loudly and repeatedly.

Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.