Parody, in its purest form, is an act of both mockery and appreciation. True masters of the practice possess a bone-deep understanding of their targets; they skewer because they love—or at least, because they’ve done their homework. Judging from his new movie, the sublimely silly They Came Together, director and co-writer David Wain is a closet connoisseur of the modern romantic comedy. About midway through the film, he offers a spot-on approximation of one of the genre’s many tropes: As Norah Jones coos sweet nothings on the soundtrack, the happy couple—played by Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler—canoodle through a Manhattan montage, making pasta for two, swimming through a pile of autumn leaves, and horsing around at a fruit stand. Everything about the scene, from its compositions to its editing to its wordless performances, is uncannily familiar. There are actual jokes, too, including an agreeably absurdist punchline, but they’re almost unnecessary. Seeing clichés mimicked this skillfully is plenty hilarious.
They Came Together turns out to be an enthusiastically zany comedy, made in the reality-bending tradition of a Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker production. Yet the film’s best and funniest moments are its geekiest ones—the passages that allow Wain to recreate, with precise fidelity, the look and feel of a Nora Ephron date movie. You’ve Got Mail is certainly the basic model for the plot, which finds corporate candy shill Joel (Rudd) and indie-sweetshop owner Molly (Poehler) regaling their dinner companions with the very long, digressive story of how they met and fell in love. New York is positioned as the third protagonist—literally, as the characters repeatedly tell each other. Recycled aerial footage of the city underlines just how generic this particular insight is. The whole film is like that, its dialogue constantly poking fun and calling attention to the shopworn conventions.
Wain packs They Came Together with supporting characters, most of them variations on stock rom-com archetypes—the exes, the siblings, the co-workers, the yuppie parents, and so forth. (The increasing volume of sideline players, most played by familiar comedians, becomes a joke in and of itself.) In an early and particularly witty scene, Joel gets contradictory relationship advice during a pick-up basketball game, each friend explicitly remarking on how he embodies a different attitude about love. “Being married is great,” insists Kenan Thompson. “That’s the point of view I represent.” There are climactic speeches and dress montages and contrived misunderstandings. Some groaners are converted into running gags, as when Joel and his brother (Max Greenfield) get in a duel of parting, one-last-thing-before-you-go affirmations.
The creative team has experience with spoofing: Both Rudd and Poehler had parts in Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer, a hysterically irreverent riff on ’80s summer-camp comedies. They Came Together isn’t as inspired as that new classic. In some respects, it might be too faithful to the genre it savages; as in many real rom-coms, the energy flags during the plot’s backstretch, and audiences may share the drifting interest of Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper), who come to regret ever asking Joel and Molly to chronicle their meet-cute. The broader bits, meanwhile, range from lunatic (Jason Mantzoukas nearly plummeting to his doom) to lame (a waiter with a literal pole up his ass)—though laughs will depend, obviously, on a viewer’s particular sensibility. What everyone can probably agree on is that the actors commit to this goofiness with admirable conviction. Rudd, especially, finds the perfect balance between synthetic cornball charm and actual emotional engagement. Like the movie itself, he’s best when playing the rom-com clichés straight.