Returning to the anarchic, absurdist rhythms that have defined most of his work, David Wain drops the studio sheen of Role Models and Wanderlust for They Came Together, a willfully ramshackle anti-rom-com. Following two thirtysomething New Yorkers, their wacky mutual friends, and the city they love, the film latches onto tropes like a kind of cancer, twisting and expanding them to gruesome proportions. What results is chaotic but ultimately focused, bound by an intense devotion to disassembling genre and narrative standards.
Their eventual happy ending assured by an equally tongue-in-cheek framing story, Molly (Amy Poehler) and Joel (Paul Rudd) get off to a rocky start at a Halloween party, where they show up simultaneously, both dressed as Ben Franklin, and start squabbling before they even get inside. Things seem poised to get even worse thanks to their rival career choices: She’s a laidback klutz running a cute boutique candy shop, and he’s a career-driven businessman working for a giant candy conglomerate, which just happens to be intent on gobbling up her store. But plot summary is pointless in a film with such distaste for narrative, and They Came Together progresses haphazardly, across a disconnected series of scenarios doomed to be eaten from the inside out. These set pieces generally function as an excuse for Wain and his cast of comedic compatriots to get together and play off each other, in rambling party scenes, pick-up basketball games, and boardroom meetings, in which recognizable situations are established, then pushed further and further into comic incoherence, the familiar turning uncomfortably outlandish.
So while the film sometimes feels like a simple skit stretched to epic proportions, the sense of overextension suits the relentless attack on comfort and familiarity. It also seems intentional that Wain, co-writer Michael Showalter, and company are picking the bones of a fundamentally dead genre, the type of classic, mass-market romantic comedy that’s faded from the landscape in recent years. The genre’s perfunctory plots and mushy messages may be a huge, easy target, but Wain and Showalter are less latecomers than slyly roundabout pranksters, disinterested in satirizing things that actually require satire, incorporating goofy self-parody as an essential part of their formula. As in their work on The State and Stella, or Showalter’s more straightforward The Baxter, they display a twisted affection for the ordinary and the outmoded, along with a devotion to pushing these tropes to a terminal level, turning their familiarity against them.
Their style ends up as a sort of parody of parody itself, foregoing mere knowing awareness of common story contrivances for something more discomfiting, making smart humor seem as dumb as possible, full of uncomfortably long scenes, disjointed gestures, and broad goofs. It’s the same treatment previously given to the dusty relic of the summer-camp movie in Wet Hot American Summer; by picking targets that are both ripe for ribbing and completely insignificant as objects of derision, they reveal the schematic nature of both digestible cinematic confections and the satiric responses that feed on them, the mechanical system that breeds both digestible storylines and the comedic backlash that invariably arrives to tear them apart, clearing the ground for new clichés to be formed. More interested in mockery than creation, They Came Together may be aligned with the latter camp, but its strange, sincere method of tearing down these clichés still feels singular, making an odd masquerade from the husk of another desiccated genre.