David Wain has maintained a solid cult following over the years, and it’s easy to see why. The State was an MTV sketch show that only lasted for two years despite hitting for the audience that appreciated its absurdist humor that him and his fellow creators made with the show. However it wasn’t until the release of Wet Hot American Summer did David Wain became a name to remember. Though the film wasn’t a box office hit, those that saw it, loved it and it has cemented itself as a classic cult film over the past decade. Aside from some television work, David Wain has gone to write and direct three other films (The Ten, Role Models and Wanderlust) to mixed results. The latest from David Wain is the romantic-comedy spoof They Came Together, which premiered at Sundance this past January, and is now getting a theatrical and On Demand release.
They Came Together follows the story of Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler). They are having dinner with their friends Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper). After some chit-chat, Kyle and Karen ask Joel and Molly how they met. And oddly enough, their story is like that of a “corny romantic comedy” as Molly puts it.
Given how the state of spoof and parody films have been reduced to some of the lowest forms of film comedy by the likes of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, as well as anyone who tries to emulate their style, it is very refreshing to see a comedy that harkens back to the films of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, who’ve made classic comedies like Airplane!, and the Naked Gun films, among others. Regardless of intention though, all that matters is how well executed the humor is, and to do that, it needs to be understood how a proper spoof or parody works.
One thing that makes a spoof or parody work, especially in a film like Airplane! for example, is that there is an intelligent and thorough understanding of the genre that the film is taking on. When you watch Airplane!, you get the feeling that the filmmakers understood all the common tropes, characters, plot devices and storytelling mechanics of disaster films, even using films Zero Hour! and Airport 1975 as direct inspiration. Another thing that is important is to take the film seriously…sort of, at least on a surface level. Part of the purpose of a parody is to exaggerate common aspects of a subject to comical proportions. The exaggeration will not be as effective if the actors are acting as if they are aware that they are in a movie and are constantly winking and nodding to the audience. It’s much more fun when the characters are still acting like they normally would within that type of film. Also, if there are some direct and very specific references to other work, there has to be some opinion on that reference which needs to be expanded upon. A reference, in and of itself, is not a joke, it’s what you say in regard to that reference. It also doesn’t hurt to have a decent script with proper structure, character and plot.
The good news is that They Came Together is quite successful for the most part. It is quite clear that David Wain and the cast are on the same level and they are very knowledgeable and aware of the common tropes and conventions of a typical romantic comedy. It is also good that their attitude towards the subject never comes off as angry, hateful or mean-spirited, but it’s more of a joyous indulgence of every cliché possible. It works as self-aware parody and an ironic celebration of the genre. The delivery by the cast is a careful balance between straight-faced and over-the-top. There are several moments where it bordered on being too over-the-top and too self-aware for its own good, but then it would bring it back. An example of this, which is in the trailer, is the scene where Joel is talking to his friends about his relationship while playing basketball. There’s one friend whose the hopeless romantic (Jack McBrayer), the guy who doesn’t care for long-term relations (Ken Marino) and the married man whose more practical in his advice (Kenan Thompson). This scene is lampooning the common trope of the male lead whose friends are constantly giving him advice from different extremes and how the male lead will usually combine traits from all of them in order to act more like a human and less like a stereotype. This is brought up with the line Jack McBrayer’s character says to Joel, “You get it now, Mr. Combines-Traits-That-We-All-Represent-and-All-You-Need-to-Do-Is-Put-It-All-Together-and-It-Will-Be-Just-Fine-Guy?” It’s moments like these that pop up several times when the film feels like it’s being too clever for its own good, and those moments make the film suffer for it. Although, in that particular scene, having Ken Marino’s character constantly yell “Swish!” whenever he throws the ball, regardless of whether or not he actually makes it, had me in stitches.
One of the best aspects about the film’s humor is the little details sprinkled all over the film, be it actions occurring in the background, bizarre signs or quick throwaway lines. They add a lot to the overall feel of the film and the over-the-top world that the characters live in. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler have great chemistry together and despite playing some intellectually deficient characters, they play the roles mostly straight and with a level of sincerity that adds a lot to their likability as a couple. The supporting cast, including, but not limited to, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Cobie Smulders, Jason Mantzoukas and Michael Ian Black, do a great job in their roles. There are also some fun cameos that I didn’t expect; one especially towards the end. The only real issue I had is that the use of flashback to tell the story was unnecessary and did not really add anything.
The biggest pitfall that the film could have fallen into is feeling like an extended SNL digital short or a YouTube sketch, but thankfully it does succeed in its constant laugh-a-minute delivery. However, the production is unimpressive to say the least. The lighting is very flat, the soundtrack is bland, and there are a couple odd edits. The only thing I could really compliment on is that the cinematography occasionally has a few instances where it does some clever moves that provide for some funny moments. Other than that, the technical aspects are nothing to write home about.
They Came Together might be a bit messy in certain aspects, but it succeeds for the most part. It’s hard not to get lost in the absurdity of the film, especially with two great lead performances from Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. The excessive goofiness of the script and earnest performances provide for a lot of gut-busting moments that come around just consistently enough to forgive any flaws or unfunny jokes. It’s easily one of the better straight-forward spoof movies of the past two decades, and anyone who hungers for a spoof movie similar to the films of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams will find some satisfaction with this. For any David Wain fans, this is a must watch. Everyone else? It’s definitely worth a watch if you know what you’re getting into.
Side Note: So, when it comes to spoofs, people will often refer to the films of Mel Brooks, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, the first two Monty Python films or even Edgar Wright’s work in the Cornetto trilogy (more with the first two). If you’re looking for some good parody films that may not be as well-known as these other ones, there are a few I can recommend. Black Dynamite (2009) is an awesome homage to Blaxploitation films of the 70’s and if you’re interested, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) is a solid spoof of the same genre by Keenan Ivory Wayans. UHF (1989) is co-written by and starring “Weird Al” Yankovic…’nuff said. Fear of a Black Hat (1993) is a fun, satirical mockumentary that parodies early 90’s rap culture. To top it all off, there’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), which is practically the most faithful and precise recreation of a 50’s B-movie in all its cheesy, awkward and stilted glory that I have ever seen.