They Came Together

For every wayfarer who comes to New York with enough spring in his step to sprain a groin, expecting his life to play out like a romantic comedy, there are more than a few million longtime city dwellers with starker mindsets. The latter bunch will probably enjoy They Came Together, a comedy that unravels every convention of the New York–based rom-com and leaves us with a feature-length string of comedy sketches that venture deeper and deeper into absurdity as the film goes on. That may sound like a risky proposition, but miraculously, in the capable hands of writer-director David Wain (with co-writer Michael Showalter), the movie succeeds. It’s a light-hearted film that is smarter than it seems—or as Wain once said, “a deliberately terrible romantic comedy.”

The story is recycled from Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, but in this version, instead of bookstores, it’s a small candy shop owned by Molly (Amy Poehler), threatened by a candy-conglomerate exec, Joel (Paul Rudd). The pair meet at a Halloween party, both dressed as Benjamin Franklin, but the meet-cute ends in drama when Poehler overhears Rudd say something mean. Their next encounter is at a bookstore, where they bond deeply over their shared love of “fiction books.” The rest is an on-again, off-again marathon that riffs on the standard format and clichés of the genre—an exemplary case of meta-comedy, which if taken up by less surehanded writers, might come off as a long-running inside joke limited to rom-com fans.

Luckily, They Came Together is more accessible, aided by the charisma of Poehler and Rudd (re-uniting over 10 years after starring opposite one another in Wain’s most famous film, Wet Hot American Summer, his 2001 spoof of Eighties comedies set at summer camps). Their subtle chemistry is almost too charming for the level of hilarity at play, and a few glimpses of warm, sustained eye contact made me wish I were watching a more nuanced love tale, rather than one that prides itself on over-the-top shticks—for example, a make-out scene in which the couple knocks over every shelf in Molly’s apartment. Other big-name comedians make cameos, and Wain uses this as an opportunity to make fun of typecasting within the genre. When Joel plays basketball with buddies Ken Marino, Keenan Thompson, and Jack McBrayer, it’s apparent what each character symbolizes: Marino is the sex-crazed lothario, McBrayer is the wistful poet, and Rudd becomes “Mr. Combines Traits That Each of Us Represents and Everything Will Be Just Fine.”

They Came Together

Wain and Showalter call themselves hardcore fans of romantic comedies since youth, and it shows in the film’s playful swipes at some of the greats: Ephron, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols. When Molly finally brings Joel home to meet the parents, he learns that they are white supremacists (a nice subversion of the Annie Hall dinner scene), and her mother offers herself to Joel (like The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson) while Molly and her father hide behind some curtains to see if he passes the loyalty test. In terms of goofiness, these are some of the tamer jokes: another scene involves a waiter at a restaurant who literally has “a pole up his ass,” knocking plates off the tables of screaming patrons.

If there is any deeper agenda at play, it’s to draw attention to the kinks in the idea of a perfect romance. Outside of the main plot, we watch a dinner between Molly and Joel, narrating the story of how they met to their couples friends, Karen and Kyle (the talented Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader). They seem on the verge of divorce, representing the more realistic foil to Molly and Joel’s ideal relationship, and their snarky commentary might be validating for couples in failing marriages. One of my favorite moments comes near the end, when we break away from the framing story—a monologue from Poehler (that, interestingly, didn’t get many laughs in the theater), in which she describes how her candy shop went out of business, how she started taking pills, how her relationship fell apart. But before things get too real, it’s back to fantasyland. She and Rudd snap back into their starry-eyed character roles, and fall back in love—just like in the movies.