“Wet Hot American Summer” director David Wain sends up rom-com clichés in a movie that's so post-modern that it winds up post-funny
Depressed over a breakup with his girlfriend, Joel (Paul Rudd) goes into a bar and slams a double. The bartender notes that Joel looks terrible and hasn't spoken to anyone. And every time Joel says, “Tell me about it” or “You can say that again,” the bartender says the same thing. Again. And again. And again.
That scene in “They Came Together” represents the movie as a whole, which has one joke up its sleeve — poking fun at the tropes and clichés of romantic comedies — and then tells that joke over and over and over. While the film is never as deadly as the Seltzer-Friedberg school of genre send-ups (“Date Movie,” “Meet the Spartans”), it never zings and pings that way “Airplane!” or even the recent “22 Jump Street” do.
Part of what makes those latter films work is that, even with all the gags and absurdities, there's still a plot in there somewhere; Ted Stryker has to land the plane, and Schmidt and Jenko have to find the drug dealer. “They Came Together” (which had its West Coast premiere Monday at the LA Film Fest before hitting theaters and on-demand on June 27) borrows a lot of signifiers from the Meg Ryan vehicles “When Harry Met Sally…” and “You've Got Mail,” but it's too cool to be bothered with anything like a story.
Subsequently, there's no steady line from which director David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter can launch their barbs. The characters, the situations, and the story are whatever they need to be in the moment to launch whatever joke the movie feels like telling at that moment. This is Wain and Showalter working in “Wet Hot American Summer” spoof mode, and if you're a fan of that movie, you may well like this one as well.
For me, these guys seem to satirize at an increasingly distant remove from the material; they're not just making fun of the genre of rom-coms or summer camp movies or whatever but of the idea of satire itself, or of the idea of jokes have to have any kind of meaning or logic or resonance. Fans will no doubt be amused; for everyone else, the results are so post-modern that they're post-funny.
On paper, this seems like a hilarious idea, performed by a first-rate cast: Rudd and Amy Poehler star as Joel and Molly, who are telling the story of their it's-just-like-a-romantic-comedy relationship to friends Karen and Kyle (Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader). Molly's an adorable klutz who owns the candy shop of her dreams; Joel works for a confectionary mega-corporation that's about to put her out of business, but he really wants to open a coffee shop.
Everything you've ever seen in a love story of the past quarter-century happens to them, from a meet-cute (they both show up at a costume party dressed as Ben Franklin) to bonding over shared interests (they both like “fiction books”), and she of course has one black friend (Teyonah Parris of “Mad Men”) to listen to all of her problems. There's even the requisite Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year's montage, as they fall in love, break up (she never mentioned that her parents were white supremacists), and perhaps get back together when she's about to marry nerdy accountant Egbert (Ed Helms).
This was funnier to describe than it was to watch; most of the jokes are either achingly self-aware, or they insist that you forget everything you've been told about the characters up to that point, all of which will of course change again in the next scene where there's a new non sequitur gag to toss their way.
Cinematographer Tom Houghton, a TV vet, makes everything (including the photogenic leads) look washed-out and flat, even when the movie is trying to capture the lush Manhattan atmosphere that's central to so many of the movies that are being spoofed here, and a great many talented comic actors — Helms, Melanie Lynskey, Jason Mantzoukas, to name a few – are frequently left with little to do except literally stand around.
I have nothing but admiration for the comedic skills of Rudd and Poehler, and I thought Wain's “Role Models” (also starring Rudd) was brilliant. This time out, however, the laughs just never came together for me.
And that's a joke, see, because the movie is called “They Came Together,” and then I said it didn't come together. Which is a play on words. So it's meant to be funny. And then the joke is supposed to be that I explained the joke to you. Hilarious, right?