There’s only so many different ways you can make a romantic comedy. The Apartment started it, When Harry Met Sally and Harold and Maude perfected it, and the whole thing’s been going steadily downhill ever since. It’s the genre that almost killed Matthew McConaughey’s career, it’s the genre where former sitcom stars go to die, it’s a genre that is – arguably – beyond saving. David Wain is aware of this, and They Came Together looks set to be one of the last truly refreshing pieces of intelligence to be plucked from the rom-com bargain basement. Its comedy may be patchy, but there’s sarcastic subversiveness in buckets and enough raw enthusiasm to power through its doldrums and on into the clever – and occasionally bat-shit crazy – waves of meta-humor. Who would’ve thought a romantic comedy that named its male lead Joel could have been such a breath of fresh air?
The plot is something straight out of every Jennifer Aniston film ever made, with all the film’s characters living in inordinately spacious Manhattan apartments and engaging in vague “work” that never actually amounts to anything past talking vaguely about landing a new account. Paul Rudd plays the amiable, inoffensively handsome lead (think Paul Rudd in every single film he has ever been in), and Amy Poehler is every single Heigl-esque stereotype under the sun all rolled into one. It all but throws every single plot point in your face in the opening 10 minutes – but worry not, it’s all very, very deliberate indeed.
With its calculated, cookie-cutter plot and self-referentially appalling dialogue, the movie could have gone one of two ways: There is a fine line between intelligently pastiching art and lazily poking fun at it, and – to its credit – They Came Together is a good deal more Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace than Sharknado. The comedy falls flat a tad too often, but every time the film’s knocked down it seems to pick itself up with fresh enthusiasm and an impressive attention to detail.
And it really is the little touches that make They Came Together such a notable movie. Sure, scenes in which a group of guys play a pathetic game of basketball while each in turn explains their singular personality trait is good for a few chuckles, but you reap the real rewards when you dig a little deeper. Incredibly smart little touches like the induction of handheld shakey-cam when two characters have an argument, only for this overactive shooting to linger awkwardly after the pair have calmed down, shows just how much thought went into every aspect of the filmmaking.
That said, the movie doesn’t as much read you the Rom-Com Playbook as beat you over the head with it until the title is imprinted in your face. It can get a bit much at times, with a fair few jokes lingering and reappearing long past the point of amusement, but the sheer frequency and mad-cappery of the comedy pulls They Came Together through its ropier patches. Oh, and it’s got the best cameo appearance of the year by a country mile.
There’s a vast array of comic talent on show to act around Rudd and Poehler’s (deliberately) limited performances. As to be expected, they all play to type, with Ed Helms as a toothy, awkward accountant, Bill Hader as a spouter of foul-mouthed dinner conversation, and so on. It really just boils down to a bunch of talented, funny people doing what they do well, complimented by Wain’s occasionally brilliant writing, all wrapped up in a neat little 80 minute package that deserves a whole lot more attention than whatever John Hamburg’s off making at the moment.
They Came Together isn’t exactly revolutionary – it’s too grounded for that, and is only occasionally willing to go all-out weird – but it makes for a thoroughly pleasant and subversive change from the near never-ending stream of post-Friends, formulaic guff. After the crushing rubbishness of Wanderlust, here’s hoping this is a sign of Wain returning to the kind of funny, quietly alternative filmmaking that his earlier work seemed to promise. It’s a bit uneven, but They Came Together is a smart and strangely charming little comedy – besides, I’d happily watch it ten times over before ever sitting through Failure to Launch again.
Made with an unrelenting enthusiasm that steps beyond its occasionally patchy comedy, They Came Together is smart, subversive and really quite funny.