Sean K. Cureton

Not Another Rom-Com Manifesto

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on May 2, 2015 at 11:19 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

They Came Together (2014)
Directed by David Wain
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Hearkening back to the sardonic tone and irreverent conceit that made his 2001 debut film Wet Hot American Summer an instant countercultural success, David Wain’s They Came Together sets its sights on the romantic comedy genre, taking its time to lampoon and mock nearly every scene, sequence, and archetype employed to greater sincerity in the works of Nora Ephron. Which is not to say that They Came Together is an entirely thankless parody; on the contrary, Wain’s take on the will-they-won’t-they repartee first established in Rob Reiner’s seminal genre feature When Harry Met Sally is effusively fawning of its source material. While actors Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are obviously having the times of their life employing their comedic chops in the service of what is without a doubt one of the most broad comedies to have come out last year, both performers’ impeccable timing belies an intimate understanding of the basic wholesomeness at the heart of a Nora Ephron film. Like Sleepless in Seattle, They Came Together offers an idealization of romantic intimacy as a fantasy compassionately engaged in despite the inherent hypocrisies which Ephron herself was astutely aware of indulging. Despite Wain’s overt distaste for some of the melodramatic manipulation most abundantly present in You’ve Got Mail, They Came Together is for all intents and purposes a loving ode to Nora Ephron, even if its tribute to the modern saint of love is couched in a script that features some mild potty humor.

From the outset of Wain’s film, his inclination towards absurdist intellectualism is made known in the film’s self-aware construction. Rudd and Poehler’s story of how they met and fell in love is delivered in a frame narrative where a second couple make constant asides and remarks on the film’s resemblance to the romantic comedy genre. In the hands of a lesser comic writer, the tight, unforgiving construction of They Came Together could easily become insurmountably irritating, its rhetorical transparency amusing purely through the prism of a cynical detachment incongruous with the genre that which it purports to celebrate through mimesis. While much of the film’s cast, culled from Wain’s cult-classic sketch comedy show The State, are incapable of delivering a performance that isn’t entirely inauthentic in nature, Rudd and Poehler provide a dramatic center that is perpetually believable, their plight buoyed by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper as their captive, but complicit, audience of their comedy of errors. In They Came Together, the romantic comedy genre isn’t turned on its head so much as it is conspiratorially chided, Wain’s engagement with the films of Nora Ephron never far below the surface of the script’s construction, informing the film’s irreverent parody while simultaneously uplifting Wain in his reverence for the genre’s central cinematic manifestos.

Supporting a stellar cast of big and small comic performers and character actors, including a climactic, uproarious cameo from dramatic heavyweight Michael Shannon as Poehler’s ex-con, ex-lover, They Came Together works through the tenacious commitment Wain is able to pull from the entire production. In its patchwork of romantic melodramatics with The State’s sketch comedy roots, They Came Together becomes immediately quotable in its use of quick, witty one-liners and memorable, self-contained bits that ultimately convalesce into one, cohesive whole never entirely willing to make fun of itself, allowing Rudd and Poehler to remain sympathetic despite their clownish personifications of other characters from the films of Nora Ephron. While it would be easy to skoff at Wain’s oft times false sincerity, his comic sensibilities obviously insincere to a fault, like Wet Hot American Summer, Wain appears to largely love the characters which he has created, a precedent that made his buddy comedy Role Models work despite its sophomoric ill will. Even if the basic concept behind They Came Together is eviscerating in its exactitude towards satire, the finished product, fleshed out with the immediate charisma of its stars and supporting players, becomes the light-hearted parody that is ultimately in celebration of the film genre that They Came Together may then simultaneously lampoon through the script’s sardonic wit. It’s no You’ve Got Mail, but it takes the same thematic tone to its logical conclusion, as most adroitly manifested in Rudd’s hilarious encounter with a local bartender that becomes its own recursive loop of literal-minded logic.

If Wet Hot American Summer is representative of a mock-parodist in his creative infancy, then They Came Together is the heralding of that self-same talent into mature fruition. Casting aside the merely sophomoric characteristic in his last feature film, the romp-in-a-commune, domestic dramedy that was Wanderlust, Wain has crafted, for perhaps the first time, the pitch-perfect parody of cinematic proportions that he has always been capable of achieving. Where his feature film debut took its inspiration from other coming of age satires such as Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs, itself an atonal experiment in insincere dramatic mockery, They Came Together approaches the films to which it owes its creative debts with an understanding achieved through Wain’s intimacy with the genre’s genuine attractions. They Came Together’s titular paramours’ affection for one another is honestly represented, albeit in a manner where Wain’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. Reminiscent of the oeuvre of Nora Ephron to the point of lifting entire sequences and narrative arcs wholesale from Ephron’s filmography, David Wain’s They Came Together is surprising in its playfulness with the romantic comedy genre, taking aim at the genre’s basic redundancies in dramatic structure as opposed to taking cheap shots at the genre’s inherent melodramatics, making the film a joy to watch both for those who love When Harry Met Sally and those who merely tolerate its emotional manipulation, neither party entirely wrong in their estimation of this particular genre’s intrinsic worth, a dichotomy that They Came Together hits squarely on the head.

They Came Together is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies On Netflix Recommendation of the Week.

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