Those merry pranksters David Wain and Michael Showalter aim to do for the factory-made Hollywood romantic comedy what their “Wet Hot American Summer” did for the summer-camp movie in “They Came Together,” a lively comic jamboree that’s sometimes smarter than it is funny and hits about as often as it misses, but is, on balance, a good deal of fun. Led by game, frisky performances from Amy Poehler and regular Wain alter ego Paul Rudd, alongside many other “Wet Hot” alumni, this spirited exercise in genre implosion doesn’t come anywhere near the inspired heights of that film or Wain and Rudd’s terrific “Role Models” (2008), but should pacify fans still pining for that long-promised “Wet Hot” sequel. Lionsgate can expect modest niche B.O. when it opens pic June 27.
On one level, “They Came Together” feels as though it might have been incubated during the making of Wain’s previous feature, “Wanderlust” (2012), which starred Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as a pair of upwardly mobile Manhattanites who end up living on a latter-day hippie commune after the recession hits them in the gut. Though it was a typically smart, self-aware Wain scenario, the movie did fall prey to some of the same, perhaps unavoidable romantic-comedy cliches that the helmer’s new pic takes mercilessly to task.
This time, Rudd and Poehler play a seemingly happy, well-adjusted couple who, in the movie’s amusingly tongue-in-cheek framing device, recount the story of how they met and fell in love to more wizened, cynical married friends (an underused Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) over dinner in a New York restaurant. The tale they tell is like some unholy frappe of every Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson vehicle of the past 25 years, replete with chance meet-cutes, matchmaking BFFs, disapproving dads, wisdom-dispensing grandmas, alt-rock montages, minor misunderstandings conflated into relationship Waterloos, wedding-day jitters, and madcap dashes to the altar. And all of it unfolds against the Big Apple, which, as our narrators note early on (and repeatedly throughout) is “almost like another character” in their story. Cue stock-footage helicopter shots of the Manhattan skyline.
There, on the quaint Upper West Side, Poehler’s free-spirited independent businesswoman Molly runs a boutique confectionary noxiously named Upper Sweet Side, while Rudd’s Joel toils away as a corporate lackey for the nefarious Candy Systems & Research, a kind of junk-food Monsanto intent on opening up a giant superstore — where else? — right across the street from Molly’s artisanal perch. Both are on the rebound from failed relationships when they’re introduced by mutual friends at a Halloween party. It’s anything but love at first sight, however, until they meet a second time at the Strand bookstore, where they bond over their shared love of “fiction books” and the sparks start to fly.
Wain and Showalter (who got their starts on MTV’s much-loved but short-lived sketch comedy series “The State”) have their own rhythm and tone that’s neither the straight-faced deadpan of the Zucker brothers nor the Jungian, Dada-like absurdity of the Will Ferrell-Adam McKay pictures. At their best, which is about half the time, they’re like the greatest college-review humorists you’ve ever seen, at once inside the ostensible reality of the scene, joyously undermining it, and then standing back and making sure you know that they know exactly what they’ve done. It’s a tricky balancing act in which they are aided by many agile partners, especially Rudd (who has a lot of fun taking shots at his handsome-in-a-nonthreatening-way leading-man image) and Poehler (who made one of her earliest screen appearances in “Wet Hot” and whose signature brand of social and verbally maladroit humor is a natural fit here).
These folks are willing to try just about anything for a laugh, from the old-school scatological (a true gross-out gag involving a bout of diarrhea and a tight-fitting superhero costume) to the alarmingly literalist (a snooty restaurant server with a literal pole up his ass) and, in “They Came Together’s” most inspired bit, acrobatic shadow-play sex performed (we kid you not) by the Connecticut-based Pilobolus Dance Theatre. Indeed, the more the film strays from head-on parody mode, the funnier it tends to be.
But unlike Wain’s best work, “They Came Together” never really transcends its sketch-comedy roots, or gives us characters as memorable as the ones who made “Wet Hot American Summer” such a beloved cult totem. It’s more of a dashed-off, minor-key effort by people we know are capable of more, and even at a mere 83 minutes it teeters on the brink of overstaying its welcome. It’s also overstuffed with a lot of funny people (Christopher Meloni, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey, et al.) who haven’t been given very much to do. Perhaps the biggest problem facing the movie is that the phony Hollywood romance is such low-hanging fruit to begin with that it doesn’t quite seem to merit a feature-length takedown. (Will Gluck’s 2011 “Friends With Benefits” did the trick nicely in a few short strokes with its hilarious film-within-a-film parody starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones.)
Shot quickly (20 days) and relatively cheaply, “They Came Together” also sports the least elegant look of any of Wain’s pics, with harsh, TV-style lighting and flimsy sets — though, in this, it very much mirrors the objects of its satiric affection.