The agreeable romantic-comedy critique They Came Together is occasionally very funny, and moderately funny the rest of the time. In mathematical terms that adds up to pretty funny or “funny enough.”
Director David Wain has worked in genre spoofs and other comedies, never more engagingly than in the summer-camp goof Wet Hot American Summer, a beloved film very few people have actually seen, co-written with his frequent collaborator Michael Showalter. Their script for They Came Together recycles every lame, predictable and hackneyed rom-com trope its makers can scrounge out of our collective, mushy memories of You’ve Got Mail, a number of Katherine Heigl and Sandra Bullock vehicles, Bridesmaids (which doesn’t really count, since it’s good) and dozens more.
The actors know exactly what they’re doing. Over dinner with friends played by Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader, candy conglomerate executive Joel, portrayed by Paul Rudd, joins Amy Poehler’s chipper confectionary emporium owner Molly in telling the adorable, improbable tale of how they met, fell in love and fell into a vat of rom-com clichés. The setting is New York—a place that’s “such an important part of our lives,” as Joel says, “it’s almost like another character in our story.”
Flashbacks reveal their meet-cute at a Halloween costume party, when they arrive sporting identical and decidedly unsexy Ben Franklin get-ups. Screenwriters Wain and Showalter are hitting some fantastically easy targets here, but they get a lot done in the movie’s 83 minutes. Molly and Joel’s bond over their shared love of “fiction books” hits the rocks when Joel’s controlling babe of an ex (Cobie Smulders) comes back into the picture. These two clearly are wrong for each other, as indicated in an early exchange. “I love you,” Joel says. The reply, indifferently delivered: “And I adore your spirit.”
The cameos are plentiful, including a late-breaking spot for an ax-wielding, insanely mugging Michael Shannon. The best jokes tend to be a little off the satiric topic, as when we see outrageously limber shadow-play depictions of sexual intercourse, with members of the bendy-twisty Pilobolus Dance Theatre standing in for Rudd and Smulders.
Poehler and Rudd are such intuitive and creative comic performers, they have a way of both maximizing uneven material and showing it up a tiny bit. Throughout They Came Together you’re aware of witty people trashing, affectionately, a generally witless genre. The leads provide the affection; the script’s riskiest gags, including white supremacist in-laws and a deeply inappropriate grandson/grandmother clinch brought off with panache by the ever-wholesome Rudd, ensure that the well-worn grooves here offer the occasional surprise.
They Came Together (R): ★★★✩✩