Romances are Hollywood's most anxiety-inducing fantasy. Like superhero flicks or horror films, they exist in a phony world of big scenes and breathtaking climaxes. But while audiences know that geeks can't meld with spiders and that the bogeyman isn't real, they still hope to fall in love, and boy, it'd be nice if their partner were more like Tom Hanks (or Gosling, or Gere, or even mid-career Mel Gibson). Romantic comedy's mundanity is what gives it power, fed by the tears of every broken-hearted ex who can't understand why life isn't like the movies.
Here's why life isn't like the movies: Romantic comedies are insane. To sustain 90 minutes of suspense, the would-be lovers have to meet-cute, reject each other for mystifying reasons, then be forced by the universe to reunite. In reality, a couple who acts like this would have sworn each other off by the second act, and who has ever had a cosmic business deal/shared hair salon/clown academy ready to magically drag them back together?
David Wain's romantic comedy They Came Together isn't quite like those other movies. Squint at Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd and you could almost mistake them for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Both onscreen couples are respected by their peers, adored by the public, and a pleasant combination of petite blonde meets non-threatening hunk. There's just one difference: These comics acknowledge their movie is nuts.
Rudd has played these parts before; 19 years ago, he made his movie debut sourly wooing Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Consider They Came Together his joking apology. In it, Rudd and Poehler play Joel and Molly, a New York pair recounting the saga of how they met to their unhappily married friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) in a suave Upper West Side restaurant. He was a corporate shark for a behemoth candy superstore; she was an angel who ran a twee neighborhood sweet shop whose proceeds went straight to charity. From there you can predict every plot point. After Poehler's character beams, "The only difference is it's not a movie, it's our real life!" she pauses and shoots a knowing look at the camera.
They Came Together is a formulaic romantic comedy cranked up to 11, loud enough to make the audience hear the distortion. If your typical ingénue is a klutz, Poehler opens the film knocking over every shoebox in her closet and promptly falling down the stairs. Joel and Molly exist in a bubble where even their accountants ask about their love lives, in a picture-perfect Manhattan that's so cliché the local train stop is called the Upper West Side subway station. No matter what's onscreen, the soundtrack tinkles with aspirational jazz.
Wain and his co-writer, Michael Showalter, are stretching out the weird rhythms of sketch comedy to feature length. His last flick, Wanderlust, was a conventionally silly story about a married couple who move into a commune. The characters were relatable, it was just the setting that was whacked. Here, everything's gone off the rails. To prove Joel and Molly are made for each other, an early split-screen shows them singing in separate showers to the same song. Then they both shave their faces. They're introduced in matching Benjamin Franklin outfits, a fact neither mentions, and immediately turn from charmers to monsters who hate each other on sight. And when they finally drop their defenses and bond, it's over banalities: a shared love of Q-tips, grandmothers, and the color blue, plus the stunning revelation that they both like books. Chirps Molly, "I've literally never met anyone else who likes fiction!"
Together lurches with anti-humor, those awkward pauses that have taken the place of punch lines. No one knows how to end a conversation; several scenes end with people repeating themselves like robots waiting to be rebooted. The film's margins are crammed with disorienting visual jokes: doorknobs with arrows illustrating how to open them, casual parties that abruptly turn into sit-down dinners, sex scenes where Joel and Molly wake up in an underwear-strewn bedroom while somehow still fully dressed. Major characters appear and vanish, beholden only to the contrivances that keep the couple from making out. Halfway through the movie, around when Wain's target shifts from You've Got Mail to Jerry Maguire, we learn Molly has a sister and a son. Then both evaporate before we bother to learn their names, away on convenient fishing trips.
They Came Together is one joke repeated until you're broken down by the giggles. It shouldn't work as well as it does, and wouldn't if it weren't perfectly cast with America's Comedy Sweethearts. Rudd's innocent good looks usually straightjacket him into playing the straight man. Here, he doesn't so much let his freak flag fly as let it gingerly unfurl, allowing him to keep pace with Poehler's manic girl next door. The two haven't rescued the romantic comedy — in truth, they've punted it out the window — but if they ever wanted to make one sincerely, it's a date.