What appears funny on paper may lose some of its luster when translated to the screen. This was my experience when reading the Farrelly brother’s script for their 1999 film There’s Something About Mary. The film, not without its share of yucks, reads better on paper in large part because of how situationally involved its characters are. When transposed onto actors, their internalized reactions often times strip some of the more humorous elements found in the script. Moreover, a great deal of comic directors aren’t very formally persuasive - for every intelligent comic filmmaker like Woody Allen there’s dozens of middling comic directors in a disparity ratio that seems to trump even that of more dramatically inclined filmmakers. Some films, like David Wain’s They Came Together, joins a lineage of comedy films that are all about the jokes. But, surprisingly, the film proves to be a formidable beast of subversive sophistication.
They Came Together operates in a similar absurdist universe as Wain’s debut Wet Hot American Summer. But with They Came Together, Wain is not asking for a passive experience with his film - he requires his audience to be well-versed with the tropes of romantic comedies and to understand the formula that composes them.
A dinner sequence at a New York City restaurant opens the film where Joel and Molly (Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler) meet with Kyle and Karen (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper). The satirical qualities of the picture are laid out as simply as possible, setting the tonal absurdity that the film will embark upon. These dinner exchanges, apparently a late film addition not originally in the film’s script, comes across as an unnecessary framework but given the riffing that goes on between these talented comic actors, it’s not exactly an unwelcome one. What proceeds is a narrative both like and unlike all others - a wicked and warped deconstruction of a genre that somehow pays tribute while venomously attacking it.
Wain’s acknowledgement and deployment of the romantic comedy formula is done to highlight its absurdity. It’s an exercise in spoofing. But whereas spoofs for other genres are prevalent (horror films and the Scary Movie franchise), They Came Together is highlighted by some incredibly tight editing and a steady deployment of jokes that never dissipate in strength or consistency. From setting an incredibly ridiculous tone from the onset and managing that tone throughout, the film opens up avenues of comic opportunities that call upon typical romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail but also odd choices like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room and The Simpsons. Wain even disrupts the narrative progression with hilarious non-sequesters - a particularly hilarious sidebar includes a musical number that has to be seen to be believed. It’s an odd film that begs to be seen at a midnight screening in what’s sure to extend on the cult following that grew behind Wet Hot American Summer. Whether Wain can leverage that into something more commercially successful is a tough bet to make, particularly given that the film drips of snark. But it’s a remarkably assured, hilarious, and tightly wound piece of work - easily Wain’s most impressive film to date. So call it a victory even if the receipts might not show it.