Monday, June 30, 2014

THEY CAME TOGETHER Is A Wet, Hot, Hilarious Comedy Classic


- Funny is funny, and good lord, THEY CAME TOGETHER is flippin' funny. Sure, comedy might be subjective, but for me, the comedic stylings of David Wain, Michael Showalter, and the rest of the crew from 90's comedy troupe The State hit the sweet spot. And if that sort of comedy floats your boat, then it's time to rejoice, for They Came Together is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Back in the day, The State was one of my holy pillars of comedy, alongside things like The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, Conan O'Brien, Weird Al, and the films of Mel Brooks. The State helped mold my taste in humor, and helped fuel my love for out-there, absurdist comedy. The group then went on to have perhaps its greatest moment with the David Wain-directed, Wain and Showalter-written cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. Wet Hot is always hard to talk about, because people always want to assign *reasons* why great comedies work as well as they do. Wet Hot isn't a classic because it's a pitch-perfect parody, or because of any sort of message it has or anything like that. Nope, the movie is just funny as hell, and completely encapsulates and exemplifies everything that makes The State's brand of absurdist humor so hilarious. The writing is so smart and sharp - and the lines delivered so well by the talented actors - that the movie will be quoted and referenced from now until forever. Since Wet Hot, a bunch of members of The State collaborated on the movie The Ten, and Wain, Showalter, and Michael Ian Black starred in the short-lived Comedy Central series Stella (and then the latter two re-teamed for the equally short-lived Michael and Michael Have Issues). Wain has also gone on to direct two very funny, but slightly more mainstream-friendly films in Role Models and Wanderlust, in addition to his web series - Wainy Days - which he also starred in. Showalter released a pretty-good indie comedy called The Baxter. And Wain and others have been involved in the fantastic Adult Swim series Children's Hospital, which is very much in line with the style of humor that made The State such an influential sketch comedy show.

There's your short history lesson. But the context is important so that I can make the following point: THEY CAME TOGETHER is the best movie anyone from The State's been involved with since Wet Hot American Summer, and if you're a fan of The State, Stella, or Wet Hot, you seriously need to drop whatever thing you're doing at this very moment and go watch this film.

Here's the thing: THEY CAME TOGETHER is a much more overt parody movie than Wet Hot. It's a satire of romantic comedies, in particular the sort of formulaic, cutesy, schmaltzy moves that just kept coming down the Hollywood assembly line in the 90's and early 00's. There's less of 'em now (thank god), but the tropes are now so embedded in our collective pop-cultural consciousness that we all know the conventions inside and out. So yes, on one level, there will be people who enjoy the film primarily because of how sharply and cleverly it skews rom-coms. Not just in a broad sense, but on a micro-level. Wain and Showalter love micro-analyzing all the weird little nuances that we sort of accept as being part of a given genre. The stock characters, the way people talk, the plot devices that show up over and over again until they become, essentially, self-parodying cliches. They take what's already absurd about the genre and then crank up the absurdity to eleven. At the same time, as someone who's not really a fan of 90's-style rom-coms, and who would not normally be all that intrigued by a straight-up genre parody, I can vouch that THEY CAME TOGETHER is not a simple genre parody. Like Wet Hot, this is, more than anything, a movie that exists so that Wain and Showalter can have a forum for their weird wordplay jokes, wacky sight gags, and calculatedly hilarious randomness. So please, hold the phone, all you critics who talk about this film like it's the rom-com version of Scary Movie. No. Not even close. Yes, the premise of the film is based on genre-parody, and many jokes and characters are in direct reference to rom-com convention. But that, my friends, is only part of what the movie is all about.

In any case, let's back up for a minute and talk about the film's plot and structure. The movie opens on a dinner between two couples. One - Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) - tells the other couple (played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), the tale of how they met and fell in love. This serves as the movie's framing device, and on multiple occasions we cut back to the two couples for various interjections and digressions. The first four names I mentioned already give you a solid idea of just how fantastic the cast is. For one thing, Rudd and Poehler - both alumni of Wet Hot - are perfect in their respective roles. They both totally get the tone that Wain and Showalter are going for. Rudd in particular has become a master of doing the sort of mock-sincere comedic acting that this sort of movie calls for. And Poehler is similarly excellent. Meanwhile, their characters' backstory is a great little extended riff on typical rom-com types. Rudd's Joel works for a giant, soulless candy conglomerate looking to shut down its mom-and-pop competition. Poehler's Molly owns a small little candy shop where all profits inexplicably get donated to charity. So of course, they hate each other at first, even if it's all too clear that they're fated to fall for one another ... eventually.

There are so many great moments in this film - I was pretty much laughing constantly for the duration. Some of the funniest stuff in the movie comes from the interaction between Rudd and New Girl's Max Greenfield, as his freeloading little brother. Their melodramatic conversations are instant classics. Rudd also has great scenes with his group of supportive buddies, who he meets for basketball games that mix hilariously awful basketball playing with the espousing of various nuggets of wisdom and life lessons. Ken Marino is (as always) a standout as Rudd's brash, mulleted b-ball buddy. But Jack McBrayer and Keenan Thompson are no slouches. Michael Ian Black is also a scene-stealer as Rudd's asshole work rival. Nobody does smug d-bag like Black, and he cranks up the douchery to new levels here, to hilarious effect. Actually, the candy conglomerate where Rudd works is filled with funny folks. Micaela Watkins and Jason Mantzoukas pop up as co-workers, and then, Christopher Meloni ... Dude. How is a guy whose stock-and-trade is playing stern hardasses also this freaking funny? Meloni became a cult comedy icon in Wet Hot, and he's breathlessly funny here as Rudd's grandiose boss. I can't even talk about the character without spoiling a bunch of great jokes. Suffice it to say, the guy just owns it once again. Who else? Ed Helms is funny as a sad-sack suitor of Molly's, Zandy Hartig is excellent as Molly's glum sister, and Wain himself makes a great cameo that is too weird to even explain in writing. Speaking of cameos, the movie is jam-packed with them. I don't want to spoil anything, because some of the actors who pop up are just so wonderfully random and unexpected. I'll just say: there's a random "making-of-the-film" segment, *within* the film (shades of Children's Hospital) which features some great appearances. And then, towards the end of the movie, a very respected actor makes a totally insane appearance that is just weird, random, and awesome.

For the rom-com fans (or rom-com haters), there are tons of references - both broad and specific - to various films in the genre. Everyone from Woody Allen to Nora Ephron gets skewered, and I've already seen articles on Vulture and other websites that list out all the little nods to various genre staples. A lot of the parody isn't even specific to rom-coms though. Like I said, Wain and Showalter love to microanalyze the weird ways that characters talk and act in movies in general. And anyone who's followed their work will see the kinds of trademark jokes that have popped up in things like Stella and Wet Hot reappear. So yes, you can bet that there will be at least one random make-out sesh where one character dramatically whispers to the other something like "what are we doing ...?", and at least one diatribe that includes an absurdly long list of rhetorical questions. There will be random gross-out gags and at least one big, romantic profession of love that falls hilariously flat. In short, all the sorts of jokes that these guys deliver so well are here, and man, as a devotee of The State and all that came after, I couldn't be happier.

There's just a great feeling that comes with seeing the best in the biz do what they do best. I grew up on The State's humor, and because we only rarely get new material from the State/Stella crew working in tandem, THEY CAME TOGETHER couldn't be more welcome or more needed. In a world dominated by Apatowian improv-comedy, dramedy that is less about laughs and more about social satire, etc., it's infinitely reassuring to know that Wain and co. are (almost singlehandedly) carrying the torch for this sort of balls-to-the-wall, anything-goes humor. This is no mere nostalgia act though. The laughs I got from this movie were genuine, and they were big. As many great comedies as we've already seen this year, the laughs produced by They Came Together were the only laughs I had that were of the truly uncontrollable, deep-belly-laugh variety. This is the comedy that made me want to urge every friend I have to go see it so that we can immediately start quoting and referencing it. This is the comedy where friends who *did* see it are already incorporating its best quotes into everyday conversation. This is the stuff of comedy legend, people. I don't know if this is quite in the same hallowed league as Wet Hot. It doesn't provide quite the same concentrated burst of nonstop comedy perfection. But it's close. Very close. And I can only hope that Wain and Showalter keep making these movies and doing their thing. Because this is my comedy sweet spot, and nobody does it better.

My Grade: A

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