Review: Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd savage the rom-com genre in 'They Came Together'
PARK CITY - Before the Friday night premiere of "They Came Together" at the Eccles Center in Park City, John Cooper talked about the reaction the programming team had back in 2001 when they saw "Wet Hot American Summer" for the first time.
"We had to ask ourselves if it was okay to show a comedy at Sundance," he said. "So thank you to David Wain and Michael Showalter for showing us that, yes, it is okay to show a comedy at Sundance." That seemed like an unintentional middle finger to Kevin Smith whose "Clerks" had played Sundance prior to 2001, but perhaps Cooper just got his timeline confused a bit. The point was obviously more to praise Wain and Showalter for making movies that have one very pointed goal: to make you laugh. A pet peeve of mine is that moment in almost ever mainstream comedy where the laughs stop and the plot kicks in. There should be a name for that moment, because almost every single time that happens, it kills a good film dead in its tracks. Comedies that manage to make the actual mechanics of the plot part of the comedy and part of the entertainment should be praised and singled out because it is a very difficult skill set to acquire, evidently.
"Wet Hot American Summer" is not serious for a single second of its running time, and I remember seeing it at Sundance. It felt really crazy and subversive because of how completely it refused to play by the rules of being a "real" movie, and because it spent so much energy pointing out the exact rules that it refused to follow. It's a sense of humor that is not for everyone, and I'm sure some people find it exhausting to watch a film that is relentlessly commenting on the form of this particular genre of movies. "They Came Together" is very much the same kind of comedy from Wain and Showalter, but instead of cheesy teenage camp comedies, they're taking aim at the phony Hollywood romantic comedy genre this time.
I did an interview with this group, and both Wain and Showalter made it clear that they really like romantic comedies. The thing is, they are so merciless in this film that it would be very hard to buy into one of them after watching this. They hit every point dead-on, whether it's the way they set up the main characters (Poehler is the endearing klutz running the quixotic corner store and Rudd is the rough-around-the-edges man-child working for the giant corporation that's going to put her out of business) or the way they meet (a blind date at a costume party where they both come dressed as Ben Franklin) or the structure right down to the ending where Rudd has to run find her after she bails out of her loveless wedding to Ed Helms. This isn't a "Scary Movie" style parody where they are doing specific films. It's not like they do one scene from "When Harry Met Sally" and one scene from "You've Got Mail" and one scene from "The Notebook" and one scene from "Love Actually" and then one scene from "300," just to mix it up. Thank god for that. Instead, it's a demonstration of just how much they know the way these things are built, and they're sending up the conventions themselves.
It's a safe bet that a certain percentage of the audience will show up to see Poehler and Rudd and they'll want to see the real version of one of those movies, not a movie that demolishes the form with glee, and those people will probably leave upset. But it's more likely that anyone who goes to see a David Wain film co-written with Michael Showalter starring Rudd, Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Ed Helms, Noureen DeWulf, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, and Jason Mantzoukas is probably already hip to the joke and is going to realize what they're watching about ten minutes into it.
The film is aggressively paced, and it covers a lot of ground, hitting a lot of targets. Rudd could probably do this same film for real and make a ton of money doing it, but he plays Joel as one step above brain damaged, with an especially stupid dream he wants to follow, and he makes choices that hip-check the film into a sort of surreal silliness. Poehler never once betrays that any of this is a joke, and part of what makes her great for this lead is how she sells it like she really means it, even when playing a beat that is intentionally insipid. Ed Helms knows this part inside out now, having played the real version of this part. In fact, that can be said of almost everyone here. Part of what makes it feel like they mean the satire in "They Came Together" is that every one of these actors has probably been hired to play the real version of the role they play here at least once. Cobie Smulders and Christopher Meloni probably score the biggest laughs among the supporting players, both of them playing it as straight as possible, which only makes it weirder to see what horrifying people they're playing.
For a film that was shot fast and cheap, cinematographer Tom Houghton and production designer Mark White do a great job of making this look like the mid-budget studio version of the films they're mocking, and shooting in and around New York (a running gag in the film plays off that old chestnut about "New York feeling like a third character in their relationship") makes the film feel way more big-budget than it is. There are probably funnier satires out there, but "They Came Together' Is laser accurate in the way it skewers its targets.
It feels fitting to publish this right after publishing a review of the Frankenstein's monster of a rom-com, "That Awkward Moment." That's the sort of film this film shreds, and it looks even worse after seeing how well this movie makes its case.
"They Came Together" will be released later this year by Lionsgate.