Satire and send ups are sharp, dangerous implements in the toolbox of cinematic comedy. Wield them right and you get cherished chucklers like Airplane!, There's Something About Mary, and even Scary Movie, but when held in slack, sloppy hands and rushed to the screen, the result winds up on the other side of funny — just take Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, or anything else by the splice 'em and spoof 'em team of Seltzer-Friedberg. Most unfortunately — or perhaps I should say, most unfunnily — They Came Together lands in the latter camp. The micro-budgeted flick was shot in 20-something days and could have used a bit of camp (pun intended). That's not to say They Came Together doesn't have its rewards, but there's just not enough of them to hold the muddled mass together.
The film, co-written and directed by David Wain, marks a reunion of sorts for Wain and writer Michael Showalter. Back in 2001 the pair churned out the American Pie meets Meatballs cult hit Wet Hot American Summer. In between, Wain made good on his comedic promise with solid efforts like Role Models (2008) and Wanderlust (2012) — but sometimes it's not wise to go back to the well.
While Wain and Showalter's efforts don't shine through, the film is buoyed by its charismatic leads, Paul Rudd, who's become a defacto workhorse for Wain, and SNL alum Amy Poehler. The two don't have much chemistry with each other or the shiny-happy urban landscape they're pinned up against, but they do make a go of the rom-com skewering that takes aim at When Harry Meet Sally and anything else Nora Ephron had a hand in starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
Overall, it would be hard to dutifully tag They Came Together a slapstick or a send up. At its core, it wants to dig at the movies that do the digging on other movies. Think of it as a deconstruction of a satire — a parody of a parody, if you will. And if that sounds very meta, and potentially alluring, in execution, it's a self-deprecating disaster. The rickety framework opens on Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Poehler) recounting the journey of their union over a fine dinning experience with friends (Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader) somehow held rapt by the long brewing tale. It's in the flashbacks in between that we get the dirt and the glory too.
The pair's first meeting has the two showing up to a costume party, both dressed as Ben Franklin, where they bond over the fact that they both love fiction — because no one else does? It's that kind of a movie, where twee jokes that may have seemed like gut tickling haymakers while incubating the script over beers, fall flat on screen. None flatter than the scene when a depressed Joel saunters into a bar to find solace. The bartender, noting his condition, offers a cliched sympathy to which Joel responds, "Tell me about it" and "You can say that again," which the bartender does and the scene plays over and over and over again to no end. At one point I thought there was a technical problem with my screening, but then the ceaseless looping randomly exited and the movie sailed on sans embarrassment.
The rub between lovers lies in the reveal that Molly owns a small candy shop and Joel works for a corporate conglomerate that wants to gobble up her biz. It doesn't help either that Molly and Joel are both out of recent relationships and still tethered to their exes. Molly's Eggbert (Ed Helms) is an accounting stiff with all the romantic charm of a public bathroom, while Joel's Tiffany (Cobie Smulders) is a saucy, unforgiving lass who has a toss with Joel's workplace nemesis (Michael Ian Black) while Joel is in the room.
The worthwhile gems that do fall, fall on the side of sex and scat. The acrobatic make-up sex between Joel and Tiffany, shot cheekily in silhouetted images is the film's one true inspiration and wonderment to behold. Less original, but a relative breath of fresh air is Joel's boss (Christopher Meloni of Law and Order), who cocooned in a spandex superhero suit, can't desuit in time before an urgent deuce ruins his evening and everyone else's as well. The film's title too ostensibly is some kind of dirty minded double play, though it never really gets any engagement or even a faint allusion.
The most impressive aspect throughout They Came Together, however, is the above-the-material professionalism that Rudd and Poehler maintain. It's as if they're acting in another movie. By comparison, even Date Movie bears greater consistency. That's not to say it's a better movie. They Came Together is a notch above in cast alone, but if anyone wished to see this formula played better and as close to the bone as possible, Date Night would be the sweet spot.