Romantic comedies follow a formula. Already, I’ve encapsulated the conceit of They Came Together (2014), David Wain‘s showcase for Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Wain’s Very Big Brain. Fortunately, I spent a sentence getting to that trite point, rather than 83 minutes. You’re welcome.
They Came Together opens with a frame device—Molly (Poehler) and Joel (Rudd) dining with another couple, who ask how the leads met—to add a layer of commentary to a purposefully cliche tale; the writers appear to be hilariously unaware that they’re aping the scenario and subversive impulse of the opening to Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012). Molly and Joel protest telling their story, saying it’s “right out of a romantic comedy” starring them and a third main character: New York City. They joke with Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper) about how their story could be a movie, and that it would open with long shots of the New York skyline. The film cuts to the described shots, and Molly and Joel narrate their stories as we watch flashbacks of them overacting everything that’s described. Molly says she’s clumsy, so we watch her stumble across her room like the fourth Stooge. This actually seems like it might lead to wonderfully subversive humor, something a bit different for a genre that is as formulaic as any.
However, the novelty of this wears off after a quarter hour, as the characters shamelessly enact the character and narrative tropes of the romantic comedy. You have to give Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter credit: they did their homework. No trope is left unturned. But there’s a difference between doing your research, and using your research to say something. Most freshman composition courses cover that fact, but to be fair, Wain and Showalter’s cynicism makes it clear that they’ve not been in college for a long, long time. Their script for They Came Together reads like a first year student’s short story that uses every fairy tale trope, but adds a footnote after every sentence explaining, “I know this is cliche! That’s why my story is clever!” The script fails to take any of its awareness and, you know, make any kind of meaningful point. Yes, rom-coms are formulaic. Yes, the interactions and circumstances do not function as representations of reality. But that’s how escapist genre fare works, and pointing it out is like watching Adventure Time and complaining that it’s unrealistic and will teach kids to frolic rather than hit the books.
The point would be more tolerable—and believe me, sitting through this movie was a struggle against the intolerable, even though I tried to overlook its faults—if it didn’t intermix its cynicism with an attempt to actually be funny, because the moments of wit and humor are few and far between, emphasizing the laziness of the rest. When the movie can find a joke that flips a trope on its head, it does so; when Joel and Molly first find themselves alone at her place, the camera style shifts to that of so many mature rom-coms, quickly tracking an aggressive hook-up while Molly runs into the cases of junk that are there only to be destroyed. This bit is simple but effective, and earns a few chuckles. But when the script can’t conjure a joke to make, it defaults to simply pointing out the trope, such as when Joel plays basketball with characters who state what viewpoint they represent. That’s not clever, and that wink-wink-nudge-nudge style of writing is a great idea for a five minute short, but not a feature-length film. Moreover, considering that the pretense for the cliches is Joel and Molly telling the story to friends, the characters outright stating what viewpoint they represent doesn’t make much sense. It’s more self-satisfying then the already self-satisfying concept that drives the whole movie.
I want to think that They Came Together isn’t pure cynicism, but it’s hard not to when the artifice of the genre is center-stage at all times. Nothing about the movie is genuine, which builds up to the ending. SPOILERS In a moment that stylistically opposes everything that’s preceded it, we learn that Joel and Molly are divorced, because all of their gains were tenuous and insufficient to sustain a relationship. Kyle remarks that listening to the story has made him realize the several flaws in his relationship with Karen, and that their marriage is not worth maintaining. Then, he says that he’s joking, everyone laughs, and the movie ends. The only moment of sincerity is recognition that insights about romance occur after Happily Ever After, not in the buildup, but of course people who live in this world can’t realize this. Ignoring the fact that the “Happily Ever After is bullshit!” theme is beyond exhausted, it eradicates the hopes of anyone hoping to find something insightful or pleasant about this movie. END SPOILERS
They Came Together wants to be clever and subversive, but it’s part of a larger discourse going on in film right now that privileges irony and cynicism to the point that people don’t even need to make an interesting point before they pat themselves on the back. Is the modern Hollywood romantic comedy a thoughtful or realistic genre? No. Maybe you could argue that it’s harmful to modern American romance, but if you want to do so, find something to say beyond, “Guys, look at all these tropes!” Your script should have more to say than a TV Tropes page.
Normally I’d find it easy to dismiss this kind of movie, but its potential makes its flaws all the more disheartening. Rudd and Poehler are phenomenal, and their chemistry saved me from insanity. The visual style is on point and the acting across the board is wonderful—I was particularly excited to see Dear White People‘s Teyonah Parris delivering some funny lines, not to mention a cameo by His Holiness, Michael Shannon—but all of its potential is squandered. I loathe They Came Together because I almost like it, but all I can say about it is what freshman comp students need to hear: just because you’re talking, doesn’t mean you’re saying anything.