A parody that loves, knows and understands what it’s mocking, David Wain’s “They Came Together” (co-written with Michael Showalter) lovingly nuzzles up to the plots, clichés and tropes of the modern big-studio rom-com specifically, only to then slash at the jugular to spill their anemic, overly sweet blood. It knows how to mock cliché big things, like jokes about set-dressing and music video montages; it’s also wise about small matters, right down to the font and the framing device. Molly (Amy Poehler) is a lovable klutz who owns a small candy shop in New York; Joel (Paul Rudd) is a good, non-threateningly handsome man who happens to work for the candy mega-corporation that’s about to knock Molly’s tiny shop out of business. Any similarities to “You’ve Got Mail”—or “When Harry Met Sally,” or “Jerry Maguire,” or “Along Came Polly” or any one of a host of grindingly generic modern rom-coms—are purely intentional, with a script that combines broad, ludicrous potshots with precise, devastating sniper-fire.
Much like Wain and Showalter’s previous “Wet Hot American Summer,” though, “They Came Together” straddles the line between homage and satire superbly; demolition only requires a hammer, after all, while deconstruction requires knowledge and care. A sequence where Rudd plays basketball with his guys—Ken Marino as a shaggy-haired lothario, Jack McBrayer as a cardigan-clad gentleman, Kenan Thompson as a married dad and Jason Mantzouakas as a kindly co-worker—includes an out-loud explanation of how all of them, collectively, represent different aspects of Rudd’s Joel, and hence have advice to offer. There are some incredibly dumb jokes as well, like when Rudd’s sob story to a bartender becomes an unbreakable loop on the level of “Source Code,” while a bit of painful literalism in a restaurant wouldn’t be out of place in a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film.
It’s also worth noting that “They Came Together” never outstays its welcome; it’s in, out and over with in a sprightly 85 minutes, moving swiftly and leaving scorched earth in its wake. Godard said “to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” and even with discreet poop jokes and Christopher Meloni in a wig so majestic it deserves its own billing, Wain and Showalter are pretty much doing exactly that here.
Rudd, a veteran of several rom-coms, navigates the comedy with game, goofiness and good humor; Amy Poehler, who has yet to debase herself with a montage-laden, mediocre rom-com, rises to the challenge with authority, verve and a great Dickensian costuming joke. Even if every plot-thread doesn’t get tied with a bow, well, you also get ludicrous, lunging make-up sex between Rudd and ex Cobie Smulders, acted out by the gifted contortionists and athletes of the Pilobolus Dance Company; if there’s a better example of the stupid-smart balance and blend “They Came Together” pulls off, I can’t think of one. Yes, spoofing the modern Manhattan rom-com is an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel—and yet Wain and Showalter are aided and abetted by a ludicrously talented cast (all of the above, plus Max Greenfield, Ed Helms, Michael Ian Black, Teyonah Parris and a few choice cameos) that keeps their aim true and the bloodletting brief. A strange, funny mockery of an all-too-familiar weak-as-cold-tea combination of form, feeling and filmmaking that big-studio rom-coms churn off an assembly line, “They Came Together” has a silly, goofy smile and a sharp, savage bite. [B+]