David Wain’s goofy, playful filmmaking approach was first successful with “Hot American Summer,” but despite solid work on television (“Childrens Hospital”), he hasn’t made a film that hits that sweet spot of mirthful humor since “Role Models.” Fortunately, he more or less returns to form with “They Came Together,” a takedown of romantic comedy traditions of chaotic, irreverent proportions. Reuniting with “Wet Hot American Summer” alums Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd along with co-writer Michael Showalter, Wain has shot a comedy that hits the ceiling of silliness and bursts through the plaster for a view of the upper floor. Every romantic comedy trope is roasted here, mocked and emulated with a wink; the only thing they’re missing to complete this maniacal medley is Kate Hudson.
Poehler and Rudd star as Molly and Joel, a seemingly blissful couple regaling an equally blissful married couple (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) with the story of how the first met. As they compare their courtship to a romantic comedy, we watch an homage to the genre’s various conventions and stereotypes unfold: Molly is a clumsy, single candy shop owner; Joel has a nice guy who works as an executive at the big candy corporation that is threatening Molly’s business. After being dumped by his icy girlfriend (Cobie Smulders), he’s invited to his co-worker’s (Jason Mantzoukas) Halloween party to be set up. On the way there, he bumps into Molly. The two are immediately hostile to each other, arguing all the way to their respective parties, which turn out to be the same one. (“Aw,” Molly’s friend says, echoing the clichéd audience reaction. “They came together.”)
Cheesy but effective, Wain’s self-aware script manages to cram in virtually every genetic plot development from Matthew McConaughey’s romcom period while spoofing it all the way. The jokes come fast and never stop, with zany riffs and explosions of bad taste ratcheting up a high laugh quotient — sex and toilet humor abounds. Many of the gags rely on timing to the extent that they defy written description, but needless to say, the laughs hide in every corner of the wisely slim 83 minutes, as the cast clearly has fun with the material.
And what a cast it is: Wain has assembled a sprawling ensemble that includes Ed Helms, Michael Ian Black, Melanie Lynskey, Ken Marino and Christopher Meloni (whose mere appearance is a welcome delight), not to mention a handful of cameos as random as they are hilarious. The only weak link is Max Greenfield, popping up as Rudd’s underachieving brother and never quite gelling with the movie’s irreverent humor despite being a consummate funnyman (most recently on “New Girl”). No one would think to pair Poehler and Rudd together as star-crossed lovers, and for good reason: the two have zero romantic chemistry. But that’s part of the point.
Forgoing restraint at every moment, “They Came Together” indulges in every goofy impulse of its players, always in search of the next punchline. The sloppiness pays off, with the humor hitting its marks more often than not. Granted, Wain and his cohorts are gunning for easy targets here, only occasionally digging deep in their deconstruction of a genre that’s just begging for it. However, in terms of its pure laughter quotient, “They Came Together” constantly delivers.
A version this review ran at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Lionsgate releases “They Came Together” in several cities this Friday.