“Well, it’s kind of a corny, romantic comedy kind of story. Joel is kind of a typical romantic comedy leading man. He’s handsome, but in a non-threatening way. Vaguely, but not overtly Jewish. And Molly is the kind of cute, klutzy girl that sometimes will drive you a little bit crazy, but you can’t help but fall in love with her. There’s another character that was just as important as the two of us: New York City.”
And there you have it. That’s exactly what They Came Together is all about. It opens with aerial shots of the Manhattan skyline and incredibly happy music that introduces us to our two protagonists, Joel and Molly (Paul Rudd & Amy Poehler), in exactly the way that every romantic comedy does. She owns a candy shop, he’s part of a huge candy conglomerate; it’s You’ve Got Mail all over again. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s everything a romantic comedy should be; except, well, it’s a David Wain movie.
Anyone who has seen the timeless classic Wet Hot American Summer knows that Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter are grade-A dudes that can simultaneously satirize an entire subgenre while still making a film that fits perfectly into it. What WHAS did for the classic summer camp films of an era long gone, They Came Together does for the romantic comedy, and it does it so damn well. Wain and Showalter do away with any boring subtlety, constantly emphasizing the typical romcom tropes, bathing in self-awareness, and rarely playing it straight. You’ve got the meet-cute (bumping into each other in Benjamin Franklin costumes), the supporting player with no love life of their own (Molly’s blackbest friend and Joel’s high-on-life/down-on-luck brother), exes who want to get back with our protagonists (Cobie Smulders, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and a personal favorite I won’t ruin), musical montages, over-dramatic romantic gestures, and a mountain of others.
In fact, the typical idyllic nature of romance films is increased tenfold, so much so that some people might complain it gets too over the top. Those people would be wrong though, as one couldn’t imagine a funnier contemporary romcom if they were handed it on a silver platter. That being said, certain jokes might not play well with some members of the audience, using repetition and absurdity as casually as can be. Every scene with someone walking away is punctuated with a pause and a thanks (which I apparently find more hilarious than anyone I know), the words “you can say that again” really truly mean repeating the same phrase over and over, and simply having two gay men sitting in the background of a scene for an uncomfortably long time. Is it a commentary on how there’s always some queer character who barely matters in romcoms, or simply a long pause on some random dudes for amusement?
And that’s part of what makes They Came Together so damn fun, and arguably a pretty rewatchable movie. It’s finding all of those little jokes you might miss the first time from laughing so much at something else; like Joel’s apartment which is furnished with a pinball machine, a globe, road signs, and three clocks all next to each other set to the same exact time. There’s no limit to the absurdity of a lot of what happens on screen. At times it fully dedicates itself to completely out there jokes for a fair amount of time, like Christopher Meloni’s character shitting his costume at a party. In this way, it’s not all entirely geared towards the main romance plot, as subplots appear and disappear within minutes of arriving with no discussion of them later whatsoever. One of the most ridiculous is the introduction of Molly’s white supremacist family. It’s brought up, made a huge deal of, and disposed in no time at all because love. It’s typical of romcoms to do such a thing, but They Came Together does it so often.
Perhaps the absurdity of it all is only appealing to me and a few others. Perhaps the core concept only really works entirely on those who secretly live and breathe romantic comedies even though they hate how most of them play out. It’s like a friend of mine says, “Every romance should have someone who has a conspicuously detailed knowledge of Pokémon.” Joel has that, which is one of the many reasons why he’s so easy to fall in love with. And just as the film first tells us, you can’t help but fall in love with Molly as she’s tripping through life and throwing on Groucho glasses. And that’s what makes David Wain’s They Came Together so great, and, for me, so memorable. As much as it drives a stake into the heart of what the romantic comedy has become over many decades, it actually works as one just as well because of its surprisingly strong comedic writing and one of the most delightful ensembles around.
Directed by David Wain; written by David Wain & Michael Showalter; starring Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Cobie Smulders, Michael Ian Black, Jason Mantzoukas, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Melanie Lynskey, Ed Helms, Kenan Thompson, Ken Marino, Jack McBrayer, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Michael Shannon; 83 minutes.