Sub-Cult 2.0 #4 They Came Together (2014)
David Wain’s 2014 romantic comedy parody ingeniously takes the form of a very long anecdote shared over dinner and drinks. The rambling, wonderfully digressive story provides a superhero origin story for the suspiciously familiar-feeling star-crossed romance between Molly (Amy Poehler) and Joel (Paul Rudd).
If Molly and Joel’s romance feels achingly familiar that’s probably because it hits all the beats of the typical romcom, from the meet cute to the climactic dash to the airport and/or wedding ceremony to prevent the love of our protagonist’s life from leaving forever or marrying the wrong person.
Molly and Joel are sharing this story with Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper), a couple with issues of their own that spill out in unseemly admissions of deep unhappiness on Kyle’s part. In both the broad strokes and the individual details, Molly and Joel’s star-crossed romance bears an unmistakable resemblance to Nora Ephron’s abysmal but extraordinarily popular 1998 smash You’ve Got Mail.
Only instead of being rivals in the alternately precious (Meg Ryan’s cute li’l literature emporium) and soulless (Tom Hanks’ book-selling behemoth) book-selling business, Molly (Poehler) is the adorably quirky proprietor of an equally precious little candy store, the kind that somehow manages to stay in business despite insane rents, zero customers and the owner’s insistence on giving away her merchandise for free because that’s the nice thing to do, and Joel works for a candy conglomerate so vast and soulless it might as well be a defense contractor.
Like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, the brutal dictates of capitalism forces Molly and Joel to square off against each other in the winner-takes-all arena of the candy marketplace but the even crueller, even more rigid demands of romantic comedy formula insist that they end up together after overcoming the requisite hurtles to true love.
In true romantic comedy tradition, it’s hate at first sight for these likely/unlikely lovers when they literally bump into each other while both dressed as Benjamin Franklin for a Halloween party. Sparks fly, as sparks do in movies like this, but when Molly and Joel realize that they share a rare, special interest in “fiction books” ice turns to heat and these instant enemies turn into lovers.
Re-watching They Came Together, I’d forgotten just how joyously goofy the film is. There’s an awful lot of Airplane! and ZAZ in the sometimes scatological silliness. They Came Together does not discriminate between types of humor. For screenwriter David Wain and Michael Showalter, the distinctions between high and low comedy do not matter. For them, there’s no such thing as too gross or dumb or silly if a line or a scene gets a big laugh.
For example in the movie’s answer to Airplane’s “Don’t call me Shirley”, a discouraged Joel heads to a bar where the sympathetic barkeep tells him, “You look like you had a bad day”, to which Joel replies with a weary, “yeah, tell me about it.” The barkeep deadpans, “Well, you came in here looking like crap, and you haven’t said very much” to which Joel answers, “You can say that again”, prompting the barkeep to once again tell Joel “Well, you came in here looking like crap, and you haven’t said very much.”
This leads to a circular loop where Joel either says “Yeah, tell me about it” or “You can say that again” and the very literal-minded bartender does just that in the most repetitive, literal-minded manner imaginable. The bartender tells him how he knows that he’s had a bad day, and then he tells him again.
It does not hurt to have the man who brought us the Conan Mac & Me ruse, arguably the greatest running joke of all time, and a running joke dependent upon perverse repetition, executing this wonderfully silly gag but what really makes the sequence hilarious is how straight everything is played.
Joel is so oddly taken with this pointless digression that Kyle and Karen have to yank him out of this weird loop or it would seemingly take up the rest of the movie and while I laughed uproariously at the repetition, I imagine that after ten or fifteen minutes, “Yeah, tell me about it” and “You can say that again” might get a little bit old.
Though they don’t have a lot of screen time, Kyle and Karen serve an enormously useful role here as audience surrogates who can see just how weird and gross and preposterous Joel and Molly’s story is, even if they cannot.
Late in the film Joel goes to his elderly bubbe for counsel and advice. One thing leads to another and Joel, the star of our romantic comedy, comes very close to trying to fuck his own grandmother. Kyle and Karen are appropriately mortified, and confused as to why Joel would feel the need to share this story with anyone, let alone shoehorn it into the romantic story of how he and Molly fell in love.
They Came Together is not too dignified to throw granny-fucking into the mix for the sake of a laugh. Nor are Wain and Showalter above a gag where a stuffy waiter at a fancy restaurant has a pole up his ass both figuratively, in the sense that he’s stuffy and pompous, and literally, in that there is a long metal bar extruding painfully out of his anus.
If They Come Together goes to some astonishingly dumb, low places it does so with wit and elan. I’m not the biggest fan of shit jokes but I had to admire the craftsmanship and care of an extended gag here where a boss played by Christopher Meloni shits himself while wearing a superhero costume at a party and then attempts to cover up his rancid faux pas in ways that only make things worse. I don’t write this very often, but that’s a very solid, very well-constructed joke involving a dude shitting himself at a party.
Kyle and Karen’s job here is less to act than react. Kemper and Hader, both consummate pros, are more than up to the task. They Came Together gives them an endless gauntlet of ripe ridiculousness to react to. Though Hader in particular has his moments, Kyle and Karen’s role here is to act as straight men so that our romantic heroes can behave like absolute lunatics.
Romantic comedies are slaves to the myth of the happy ending, to the notion that after the central couple overcome the requisite obstacles and comes together in marriage they will be deliriously happy until they die, and then even afterwards, since they’ll be spending eternity together fucking, or at least gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes.
Of course that’s not how the world actually works. In real life, there is no such thing as happily ever after. Marriages are hard work and sometimes they’re not worth the struggle. Not every marriage is supposed to last.
So there’s wonderfully subversive about They Come Together’s last minute admission that even though the entire film has taken the form of a romantic comedy-style fantasy about star-crossed lovers living out their Nora Ephron dreams and Joel and Molly do, indeed get married, their marriage is troubled and short and leads inevitably, and rightly, to divorce.
Molly starts taking pills to numb the pain and starts sleeping with an ex again and the adorable little businesses they’ve put their hearts, soul, time and energy into fail spectacularly as well.
By definition, romantic comedies seemingly cannot have bummer endings or they’d be more romantic tragedies. But what happens with Joel and Molly can’t rightly be considered a tragedy. It’s not even particularly out of the ordinary. People fall in love. Then they fall out of love. The world moves on. Yet romantic comedy formula angrily demands that lovers end up together.
I was besotted with They Came Together’s subversively depressing ending that I was a little bummed to discover that the movie steps away from it ever so gently by having Molly and Joel decide to give it one more go as a couple. My emotions were torn. Romantic comedy formula has conditioned us to root for couples to stay together for eternity or they’e not really couples at all. This is particularly true when the couple is played by actors as inherently likable as Rudd and Poehler. Seriously, human beings do not get more lovable or awesome or irresistible than these two charmers. Yet there’s something exquisitely perverse and wrong about making a romcom about a couple who do not make it, who unmistakably fail in their overlapping romantic and business lives.
They Came Together implicitly asks why we’re so addicted to the well-worn conventions of the romantic comedy. Why does a couple breaking up feel like a violation of the romcom’s very essence? Probably because, at their core, romantic comedies are cynical propaganda for monogamy and capitalism. If you don’t get married, then do the whole house/children/pet thing, romantic comedies don’t have much use for you.
Wain’s meta spoof gets romantic comedies so right that it should have shamed romcom filmmakers out of glibly recycling cliches we all know by heart. It turns out, however, that romcom filmmakers, like most of Hollywood, are immune from shame but that doesn’t make this any less subversive or essential. To paraphrase the tagline from one of my favorite romcoms, the swooningly romantic Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra, romantic comedies are the disease. They Come Together is the cure.
Get access to patron-only content, support independent media and be a good person by pledging over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace