Sundance London 2014: ‘They Came Together’ a funny skewering of the rom-com genre

They Came Together

Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain

Directed by David Wain

USA, 2014

The course of true love never runs smoothly for everyone, but the premise of the new romantic comedy They Came Together sounds suspiciously familiar. Molly (Amy Poehler) is a slightly kooky, ditzy blonde thirty-something who somehow manages to maintain a pastel-coated candy store on New York’s Lower West Side, helpfully handing out her wares for free to the local community; such is her instinctive generosity. Meanwhile, Joel (Paul Rudd) is a likeable, easygoing dude who happens to be seeing the secretly slutty Tiffany (Cobie Smulders), who’s clandestinely sleeping with his professional nemesis and central opponent on the corporate ladder at the Corporate Candy Company, a heartless, profit-devouring corporation looking to utterly dominate the confectionary retail market and crush all competition. (You can probably guess where the narrative conflict is coming.) Both leads have ethnically diverse yet unthreatening second-generation immigrant best friends, and as an effective framing flashback attests, NYC itself is a sanitized, affordable, unthreatening modern metropolis serving as a secret character replete with surprisingly spacious loft apartments stuffed with quirky antiques, and easily accessible and local sourced restaurants. It’s a cosmopolitan cauldron reflecting a harmonious modern urban melting pot. The initial sparks of Joel and Molly’s ambient attraction are squandered by the perilous path of current Hollywood storytelling tropes – inciting familiar romantic incidents.  Will the path of true love be saved in a last-minute dash to the airport/wedding chapel/Grand Central Station as the spectre of corporate shenanigans haunt their financial future?

If this all sounds a little too familiar from a glut of movies featuring  Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock or Katherine Heigl desperately beaming their million-watt smiles from the DVD cover, it’s swiftly obvious that such plastic oeuvres are the satirical punching bag of They Came Together. From the opening frames, this largely amusing and briskly efficient caricature rifles through of one of modern cinema’s most cliché-ridden and moribund genres. After tickling the funny bone deftly enough to prompt three laughs before the opening titles have even ran—Molly demands an airy montage of New York to get the story started, in a not infrequent shattering of the fourth wall—the film soon settles into its Zuckeresque Naked Gun or Airplane!  mode of outrageous and heightened comedic adoration, with sight gags, flights of fancy, and arousal of language machine-gunning the screen. The ratio of hits to misses is roughly 50/50, as generic storytelling clichés and conventions familiar to even the most passing of viewers are reserved for the most hilarious of skewerings. (Jerry Maguire is crucified. Twice.)

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With a framing device of Molly and Joel on a double date prompting the film’s flashback structure as their friends enquire how they met , screenwriters Michael Showalter and David Wain cross-reference, parody, and plunder the entire cliché rom-com dictionary. It’s an efficient comedic structure to bounce the movie around and keep the energy levels appropriately high, as one scene that doesn’t necessarily work is soon to be followed with at least one bromide-busting belly laugh. Nevertheless, some of the comedy is formulaic and predictable: an obligatory scatological post-Bridesmaids moment simply doesn’t work, and the de rigueur inappropriate shocking deployment of the ‘c’ word seems similarly to be edging into the territory of the banal. However, these quirks in the tempo are as forgivable as a tearful apology delivered during a saccharine-scored snog in the rain.

Cast-wise, the film is littered with a cluster of brief appearances from the US comedy firmament, including Adam Scott, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Ed Helms, and Jack McBrayer. It closes strongly with a terrifically amusing cameo that shall remain under wraps, while both Poehler and Rudd have a comedic chemistry mixing the broader satire and titillating gags through to its economically minded conclusion. The film also knows when to quit at a agile 80 minutes. They Came Together’s synchronicity with former comedy genre couplings such as Top Secret! and Wet Hot American Summer might just woo you into falling for this one.

— John McEntee

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