It’s not so much that the world needs yet another spoof of romantic comedies. Whether it’s through direct parodies like Date Movie, or through reinventions like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, the genre has had enough holes poked in it over the years. Even without those films, we’ve groaned through the clichés enough times on our own. But David Wain’s rom-com spoof They Came Together, which on paper sounds like it’s way late to the party, sneaks up on you. Taking pretty much every rom-com trope and distilling it into highly concentrated ridiculousness, Wain’s film is both a takedown and a tribute: As with his summer-camp-movie spoof Wet Hot American Summer, you walk away with a renewed love for the genre.
They Came Together starts off as a variation on You’ve Got Mail (which itself was a variation on The Shop Around the Corner). Amy Poehler is Molly, described early on as “the cute, klutzy girl who drives you a little bit crazy, but you can’t help but fall in love with.” She owns a quaint little New York City bakery (named Upper Sweet Side) where she gives away everything for free and what little she does make goes to charity. Paul Rudd is Joel, “handsome, but in a non-threatening way,” and “vaguely, but not overtly Jewish.” He works for mega-conglomerate CSR — Candy Systems Research — and his company wants to take over Molly’s store. He’s also just getting over a breakup, after catching his cold-fish girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) having passionate sex with his annoying office rival, Trevor (Michael Ian Black). Joel and Molly both show up for their mutual friends’ Halloween party dressed as Ben Franklin, and they immediately hate each other, which is a sure sign that they’re destined for one another. Along the way, all the hallmarks of rom-coms get playfully skewered, from the on-the-nose dialogue (“So, you’re finally dealing with those commitment issues!”) to the neatly categorized supporting cast. (“Being married is great! That’s the point of view I represent!”) There’s even a pretty funny joke about Christopher Meloni crapping himself, which is either a desperate attempt at gross-out humor or a sly dig at the fact that so many seemingly genteel romantic comedies wind up relying on poop jokes for laughs. Or maybe it’s both.
On a gag-to-gag basis, They Came Together can be hit or miss. A bit in which the film briefly becomes a Norah Jones music video was also in last week’s Think Like a Man Too, which briefly became a Bel Biv Devoe music video. But Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter also use parodic license to go off in surprising directions. When Molly’s parents turn out to be white supremacists, it feels at first like a deranged little turn of events, until you realize that it’s just the cliché of the lily-white all-American girl and her lily-white all-American parents (see also: Meet the Parents) taken to its illogical extremes. Sure, Woody Allen got there first, with that classic shot of Alvy Singer seen as an Orthodox Jew through the eyes of Annie Hall’s bigoted grandmother at the dinner table. But Allen’s joke was bitter, dark — it came from a place of deep anxiety — whereas Wain and Showalter goof around with the idea. They’re making fun of movies, not people.
At the same time, there’s an elegance to They Came Together that you don’t usually see in spoof movies, which even at their best often feel like haphazardly shot collections of sketch-comedy bits. Poehler and Rudd have always been very self-aware actors: Poehler comes from the world of Saturday Night Live, where parody reigns supreme; Rudd, on the other hand, has made so many rom-coms — but he’s always done them with a kind of ironic distance, using his nice-guy persona in subtly undermining ways. But they’re also good actors, and you find yourself sort of rooting for them to get together, even amid the gathering silliness. The elegance goes deeper than that, however. Wain has a feel for the cadences of the genre, for the characters’ amiable way of speaking, for the comforting gloss of the rom-com. Early on, Joel and Molly talk about how New York City was like a third character in their romance (because of course). “So if there were a movie of your relationship, it would start with an aerial shot of the New York skyline?” asks a friend, and sure enough, that’s the next thing we see. It’s a totally obvious joke, but there’s still a little thrill in it — as if Wain is marveling at these movies even as he destroys them.