Some great comedies expose an unexpected truth; others merely tear down an artifice. David Wain and Michael Showalter are clearly better at the second type. These veterans of the sketch comedy TV show “The State” made a cult sensation out of Wet Hot American Summer by lampooning the absurdly rigorous tropes of summer camp comedies, turning what little heart could be found in the various Meatballs sequels into the mere fluff that pumps up one ludicrous reversal after another. And although they have made several movies since, they have never entirely recaptured the inspired mania of that early, overly critical analysis of a movie genre that never warranted that much attention in the first place.
Until now, of course, but fans of Wet Hot American Summer may feel alienated by They Came Together, a vicious send-up of bourgeois rom-coms like You’ve Got Mail and the collected works of Garry Marshall. To enjoy They Came Together one must enter the theater with enough love for romantic comedies that you’ll recognize every single stupidly detailed reference to them, but also enough disdain that you want to see them vivisected by morbidly funny forensic scientists. Who exactly They Came Together was made for, besides Wain and Showalter themselves, is perhaps a little something of a mystery, but if you find yourself on their highly specific wavelength it’s a truly biting satire, full of gut punches and belly laughs.
Molly (Amy Poehler) runs her own adorable little candy shop called “Upper Sweet Side.” Joel (Paul Rudd) works for a big corporate candy company that’s opening a store across the street. She’s adorably clumsy. He’s getting over a girlfriend who was sleeping with his rival at work. They meet at a costume party where they are both dressed as Ben Franklin and instantly hate each other because of reasons. They finally bond over their shared love of fiction books – just in general – and begin a courtship that’s absolutely insufferable and only marred by contrived turns of events.
Dear god, what a formula. And to think, some audiences have sat through hundreds of these things. So have Wain and Showalter, clearly, since they tear through hundreds of familiar tropes while following them to the letter, resulting in a film that’s almost as shallow as the worst of the rom-coms they’re commenting about. Although the humor extends beyond metatext and into non sequitur surprise cameos, white supremacists, public pooping and incest, the point – and yes, there is one – is that emphasizing the quirks of these shallow honkies only distracts from the actual meaning of their actions, which come back into question by the end, justifying an otherwise unnecessary framing device which otherwise offers just enough exposition for people who don’t watch romantic comedies to understand what the hell is going on.
But again, They Came Together was not made for those people. It was made for those who understand screenwriting so freakishly well that only a movie like They Came Together would appeal to them. And although I suspect Wain and Showalter’s script will become an “Exhibit A” in some film school or another very shortly, it’s such an in-joke that it’s bound to leave many audience members thinking that They Came Together is nothing more than an exercise in middle-class dopiness. Just like the films it seeks to destroy. The balance of meaningless shallowness and meaningful shallowness on display here is a special kind of brilliance but probably not very marketable. Fortunately if and when this movie does find its audience they are bound to be avid in their appreciation, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they started a new little cult of their own.