What was the last great Hollywood romantic comedy? The Proposal? The 40 Year-Old Virgin? 50 First Dates? A diamond in the Kate Hudson-starring rough (My Best Friend’s Girl, Fool’s Gold, Alex & Emma, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days)? Truth: To find the last magical, kitschy, sap-slathered, memorable rom-com moment, you have to go as far back as 2001’s Bridget Jones Diary — at least according to the spoofing rhetoric of They Came Together.
The latest from David Wain and Michael Showalter, two of the brains behind the cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together mines romantic comedy history for moments of earnest sweetness — lines as gushy as “You had me at hello” or yuk-yuk as “I’ll have what she’s having” — as fuel for absurdity. Before rom-com tropes were ground into payday stimulants to be snorted by Matthew McConaughey, they were springboards for Hollywood’s sharpest writers to escape reality and paint perfection. John Hughes, Nora Ephron, Richard Curtis, and Cameron Crowe were the masters. Their characters professed love simply, poetically, and with real voices. People like us could be that darn adorable!
The ’90s were a slow decline into over-manufactured nonsense — seriously, try and watch Fool’s Gold — that damned the genre with the “chick flick” label. They Came Together resuscitates the forgotten artistry while easing us back in with wink-wink parodying. It takes a certain crassness to remind people why we love romantic comedies in the first place.
Utilizing the basic framework of You’ve Got Mail — itself a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic The Shop Around the Corner — They Came Together recounts the love story of Joel (Rudd), a top executive at a candy conglomerate who just watched his coworker run off with his girlfriend, and Molly (Poehler), an absent-minded lover of life trying to keep her mom-and-pop sweet shop alive. They first meet, and clash, at a Halloween party. True to the weirdness of Wain and Showalter’s previous collaborations, Joel and Molly don’t just butt heads, they quarrel while both dressed as Benjamin Franklin. The troublesome meet cute resolves the next day, when the two cross paths at a local bookstore and discover that they both like “fiction books.”
It only takes one coffee date for the two to fall madly in love. Molly asks Joel to order her cafe favorite: “I’ll have a low-fat sugar-free banana yogurt muffin, but if they don’t have that, I’ll have half a poppy seed muffin. They can take out the poppy seeds and heat it up. If they can’t heat it up, then leave half the poppy seeds in and sprinkle the other half of the poppy seeds on half of a blueberry muffin and then cut both halves in half and throw them both away. In either scenario, I want a lemon chocolate loaf, but it must be shrink-wrapped and more importantly, it must smell more like lemon than chocolate.”
He smiles and orders it precisely. Who doesn’t love a girl with quirks?
From start to finish, They Came Together has its cake and eats it too. It jabs and subverts well-worn rom-com territory while reveling in the potential for on-screen chemistry. If Rudd and Poehler starred in a straight-forward romantic vehicle, the combined cuteness and inherent vulnerability would put it up there with When Harry Met Sally. But these two are also seasoned buffoons, as evidenced by their archetype-shattering work in Wet Hot American Summer. Poehler can play the “clumsy” girl by falling down multiple steps of stairs and standing up with grace intact. Throughout the movie, Rudd engages in unacknowledged wordplay (he sucks himself and a bartender into a hysterical, cyclical lament of you-can-say-that-agains and tell-me-about-its) and his patented smiling dope shtick. It never gets old; His ambition to open his own coffee shop, “Cup of Joel,” always hits the joke while casting that “sad puppy” shadow. You can’t help but love this guy.
They Came Together arrives tinged with sadness. We really don’t have any movies like the ones it’s lampooning. Movies where the guy talks through his relationship while playing basketball with his widely eclectic group of friends. Movies where the girl fends off old boyfriends who look like they busted out of Joliet. Movies with outfit montages and pop songs and wise siblings and almost-wise BFFs. Movies where love scenes are lusty and carefree and ripe with collateral damage (a hook-up isn’t complete with out a flower vase crashing to the floor). They Came Together‘s lampoonery isn’t on-the-nose like Scary Movie or Spaceballs — it’s all about the spirit of fluffy rom-coms. It just so happens that our modern classics were all made in the ’80s and ’90s.
Full disclosure: I had the good fortune to see an early cut of They Came Together back when it was first being assembled. The final product is even snappier, wild, and genuine than I could have predicted. Wain and Showalter pack in the comedy tight without losing track of their two leads. This is their story, and unlike the sketchy mechanics of Wet Hot, it keeps its course from start to finish. But it’s still a movie that has room for a Norah Jones musical number, a scene where Christopher Meloni poops his pants, Cobie Smulders’ yoga-style sex moves, and Michael Shannon wielding a kitana. They Came Together takes place in an alternate reality where love is sugary sweet, the comedy is borderline stupid, and both are worn on the sleeve. Or, the world of every great rom-com.