People keep asking me if I’ve seen They Came Together, since it’s a parody of romantic comedies. I did see it, but I did it the wrong way – alone with my TV on pay-for-view - so I thought it sucked. So I keep saying to these people, “Hey…” with a soulful look before I exit the room, “…thanks,” in tribute to one of this mostly bad movie’s half-decent running gags.
My friend Bob did it the right way. He and his date were in a theater with people who started laughing from the opening titles and got more uproarious from there. Movie comedy thrives on this kind of infectious chemistry. Bob’s experience illustrates my theory on the ultimate subjectivity of moviegoing (i.e. how who you saw it with, where, and when, etc. has a more than generally acknowledged effect), so I totally get why They Came Together generated those kinds of guffaws. Its willful silliness (think Airplane, et al) can apparently please a weekend popcorn crowd of rom-com lovers and haters.
Seen alone on one’s couch, it’s not such a pretty picture. I was fully prepared to write one of those snarky “I saw it so you don’t have to” pieces, before Bob and a few other folks not so discerning as myself set me straight. But I will persist in knocking the godawful ham-fisted direction of its creator David Wain, who consistently breaks a fundamental comedy rule by having every scene come on with “HEY, ISN’T THIS FUNNY?!” virtually plastered across the screen in neon.
That’s one primary problem with this picture. How do you parody comedy? For that matter, how do you parody a genre that’s already reflexively self-parodying? And as many a reviewer has pointed out, the movie’s main target is woefully dated: the parody is modeled after 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, a movie already derided for its formulaic clichés when it was released 16 years ago, so Wain’s deconstruction of it can’t possibly feel fresh.
Out to dinner with friends, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler’s characters announce that their courtship was like one of those silly romantic comedies, and proceed to illustrate this one-liner premise in flashback. Thus mostly They Came gets stuck piggy-backing jokes on top of already-jokes, making fun of stuff that’s already once-funny and then pre-made-fun-of. Since the material's tired in its very DNA, having the movie play it at top volume while constantly winking can’t really like, wake it up.
Meanwhile, Wain’s longtime collaborator Paul Rudd, who's more than paid his dues acting in both the straight and twisted versions of such material, delivers a nuanced meta-performance here, his finely-tuned mugging serving as a silent commentary on the shenanigans. Poehler’s a bit out of her depth next to this old pro, but gamely gets her SNL sketch game on. And when the script sidesteps its central premise and just goes for non-genre extremist absurdity, a few times genuine high jinks briefly ensue.
The best jokes are the ones that Wain doesn’t tar with his “aren’t we funny?!” brush. Poehler, as is formula rom-com pro forma, has a black sidekick (Teyonah Parris) whose existence is solely dedicated to servicing her unlikely white BFF, and the movie shrewdly just lets this running gag run. You may enjoy the movie’s monster-of-all-run-on-gags: A bartender tells Rudd that he looks like he’s had a bad day, Rudd replies, “You can say that again,” so the bartender does, again (alternate Rudd cue: “Tell me about it!”), and the two go back and forth ad infinitum. In the theater, Bob tells me, each repetition got a bigger laugh, while at home, I only resisted fast-forwarding because I was morbidly curious to see how long the routine would wear on.
But here’s the one routine I am truly, totally, absolutely, completely, way, way, sick to frickin’ death of: writing about how a movie like this means The Romantic Comedy Is Dead.
I’ve written about this still-misunderstood phenomenon so exhaustively and for so long that it’s exhausted me, but for one last time, here’s the brief revisionist headline: A certain kind of formulaic romantic comedy (the entirely predictable cheap, dated Career Girl Gets Alpha Guy chick flick) is no longer making money for the studios because its cookie-cutter sensibility no longer says hello to a 2010s audience, so it’s largely – thankfully – been retired. Meanwhile, the larger genre lives on, as exemplified by 2012’s Oscar-winning smart, inventively inspired rom-com Silver Linings Playbook, and the more recent rom-com hybrid (also Oscar-anointed) Her.
Given this, the only thing worse than a movie parodying the Old School rom-com too broadly and badly, is yet another journalistic screed on how such a movie’s failure means The Romantic Comedy Is Dead. This was way old news when the L.A. Weekly stirred in its stupor to make a cover story of it back in February, old news when the Atlantic name-checked me in article about it last fall. Pointing out the genre’s current decline in July, 2014 is like noting, hey, The GOP really doesn’t like Obama. So journo guys and gals, how about we move on?
Hopefully They Came Together and the reviews of same form the final superfluous nail in an already welded-shut coffin. I'm looking forward (with a rueful sigh) to Life After Beth, a romantic comedy with a concept so inevitable and intriguing that I was writing my own version of such a movie (and had to give it up) when I heard of Beth’s existence. It’s about a guy whose girlfriend comes back from the dead so they can still live happily after.
Seen that one before? I’ll wager you have not. And that, my friends, is how a genre stays alive.