At a glance, director David Wain’s latest release is a romantic comedy centered around Molly (Amy Poehler), a quirky-but-cute goofball who runs an independent candy store, and Joel (Paul Rudd), a well-meaning-but-ultimately-clueless executive with a larger candy conglomerate. The poster above does a pretty good job of reinforcing this idea, but the reality couldn’t be any further removed from this simple premise. Yes, it turns out that a setup that trite is actually being used to make a statement. They Came Together is, in fact, a complete and utter deconstruction of the summer romcom and everything it stands for. Interesting.
The story of Molly and Joel’s relationship is explained by the pair themselves, over an evening meal with their friends Karen (Ellie Kemper) and Kyle (Bill Hader) in the form of a number of flashbacks. As you can imagine, lampshade hanging is frequent from the word go, including overt comments from our protagonists on the cliched nature of their tale. In theory, then, TCT is the result of a pretty winning formula. In so thoroughly subverting the genre it offers a unique take on a fairly tired set of ideas, and when you factor in the list of names that make up the rest of the cast (including some superb turns by Ed Helms and Jason Mantzoukas, and excellent cameos from Jack McBrayer and, in an incredible feat of SNL nostalgia casting, Kenan Thompson of all people) it should really add up to something great.
Unfortunately, though, the more this film plays out, the faster the wheels begin to fall off. It really doesn’t take all that long to realise that, at its core, They Came Together is little more than one joke repeated throughout a really quite meager 83 minute runtime. Indeed, the crux of this movie’s humour is rooted in not-so-subtle nods to the audience that “Hey! We’re doing this thing that people often do in romantic comedies! But we know we’re doing it! Isn’t that hilarious?” Yes. We get it. You’re riffing on a genre that prides itself on cliches and oft-replicated premises. You don’t need to remind us every thirty seconds. At times it feels more like an awkward did-you-see-that elbow to the ribs rather than the sly wink and wry raise of the eyebrows that it should have been. It’s a shame, really, because I wanted to like this movie. A lot.
That’s not to say there aren’t some funny moments in TCT, but the sad reality is that they are few and far between and, if I’m being brutally honest (because why wouldn’t I be?), a significant part of the giggles that they impart would probably have been lost had the casting not been so absolutely spot-on. And far, far too often, this movie delves into the realm of the outlandish. The impact of anything vaguely resembling a smart laugh (and even some of the better dumb ones) is soon detracted from by a joke about, for example, Paul Rudd’s character wanting to bang his own grandmother. The irreverent intent is there but this is definitely much more like the later Scary Movie films than something as genre-defining as Airplane!
To surmise, then, They Came Together is something that could have turned out so well but failed to properly deliver on its promises. If you strip away the cast and the excellent soundtrack, all that you’re left with is a disappointingly short and overly self-aware 83 minutes of unfulfilled potential. A crying shame.