Normally, when David Wain is at the peak of his comedic powers he's also at his most bizarre. His seminal comedy hit Wet Hot American Summer is incredibly ridiculous, offbeat, and distinct in the way that many consider it a classic, while others will probably never get it. Most recently, Wain has been dabbling in more mainstream efforts such as Wanderlust and Role Models, but his latest film They Came Together is a poor attempt to reclaim his indie cred by tearing to shreds the most conventional genre of all: the romantic comedy.
That's right, the old rom-com, which everybody can admit is stale and painfully formulaic. That seems to be the entire point of Wain's film, which stars the bulk of his 'Wet Hot' cast, with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler in the lead roles as a couple whose love follows a familiar step-by-step path. The problem is that Wain isn't especially clever in pointing out the silliness behind the infamous "meet cutes", contrived romantic obstacles, and phony emotional entanglements that litter romantic comedies. We're all in on the joke right from the beginning, and Wain struggles to make that one joke fly for more than 20 minutes, much less the 83 minute run time.
The whole set-up is basically ripped from You've Got Mail; perhaps the stick by which all formulaic rom-coms will forever be measured. Molly (Poehler) and Joel (Rudd) are at a restaurant on a double date with a bored married couple (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), when the dinner conversation turns to how they met and fell in love. All the standard genre tropes are rolled out in a fashion that is initially hilarious because we all recognize them: Molly is an awkward but lovable candy shop owner, so innocent and pure and she gives all of her profits to charity. Joel is nominally her perfect match, but he works for a huge corporation planning to open its own store right across the street and put Molly out of business. When the two meet, of course they are instant enemies despite the obvious physical attraction, but soon they overcome the tension with the help of their stereotypical ethnic best friends.
It's obvious that Wain and his talented cast are having a lot of fun with this, and the film is at its best when it ventures into ludicrous tangents that feel separate from the rom-com shaming. Wain favorite Christopher Meloni co-stars as Joel's money-grubbing boss, and his embarrassing toilet misadventures at a costume party are a highlight. Joel has his group of racially diverse buddies (including SNL vet Kenan Thompson and The State's Ken Marino) who all play basketball (badly) and act as Joel's voices of reason. While these scenes are funny and clever in their own way, you can almost hear the gears grind to a halt during a torturous, repetitive sequence between Joel and a bartender over the phrase "You can say that again". It's one of those scenes that starts off funny, becomes tiresome, but never goes back around to being funny again, and you know that's what Wain was hoping for. The film's weak double-entendre of a title should tell you there's nothing subversive going on here; every joke is pretty obvious.
Unfortunately, there are too many moments just like that one. There comes a point when Hader and Kemper's characters begin to grow weary of the overlong tale, and it's a pretty good reflection of how the audience will feel at that point. Satire is a tough beast to tame, and while some of Wain's jokes are obviously meant to be terrible, surely not so many were designed to fall as flat as they do. Rudd, who has been in more than his share of lame romantic comedies, plays along with the gags and pokes fun at himself most of all. He and Poehler make for a great pair, one that wouldn't be too surprising if they were in a straight-up rom-com at some point, but they just don't have enough material to work with. As a fan of The State and Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together feels like Wain flailing desperately to reclaim that old magic but finding it simply isn't there.