Romantic Lampoon: "They Came Together" rips rom-coms a new one

They Came Together (2014) 
83 min., rated R.

Like writer-director David Wain and screenwriter Michael Showalter's 2001 culty, anarchic summer-camp spoof "Wet Hot American Summer," "They Came Together" ribs on another witlessly predictable genre that is ripe for skewering and has already become a self-parody of itself—the romantic comedy—and yet the easy target has never actually been satirized before or as well. ("Date Movie," the first of the infamous Aaron Seltzer-Jason Friedberg atrocities, does not count, even though it's the so-called comedy filmmakers' "best" film.) With any alleged spoof ending in "Movie" ("Epic Movie," "Disaster Movie," or "Scary Movie 5") or the "A Haunted House" movies, the present idea of parodying something is just replaying a scene from a recognizable movie and tacking on a lame fart joke or pop-culture reference purely based on recognition. "They Came Together" doesn't do that, as it's more of a likable, unabashedly farcical delight than a "we know we're in a movie roasting a certain kind of movie" drag. 

Over dinner with another couple of friends (Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper), Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) tell them (and us) how they met. What do you know, their story is "kind of a corny romantic comedy kind of story." It wasn't love at first sight, though, as we find in flashback. Joel was a corporate executive for a candy conglomerate threatening to put little indie stores out of business and trying to put aside his commitment issues to pop the question with girlfriend Tiffany (Cobie Smulders), but he was too oblivious to notice she was cheating on him. Molly was that "cute, klutzy girl that might drive you a little crazy but you can't help but fall in love with her" trying to keep her charming little candy shop, Upper Sweet Side, afloat. With both of them single, Joel and Molly realize they were set up to meet one another at a Halloween party their respective friends (Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey) were hosting, but on their way to the party (both coincidentally dressed as Ben Franklin) run into one another and take an instant disliking to one another. Not much later, the two eventual lovebirds run into one another at a bookstore and, get this, they both like, no, love fiction books! Molly asks Joel out for coffee, and he has always yearned to open up a coffee shop called "Cup of Joel" (you get it, right?), and the rest is history. Any guesses on whether they really end up falling head over heels in love?

The title is a double entendre if you read it again and it might be the raunchiest bit in the filmokay, aside from one of the more wild wham-bam sex scenes next to "Team America: World Police" and "MacGruber." Brazenly goofy, sublimely silly and, above all, frequently funny, "They Came Together" is shrewd and knowing about how stupid it is. Instead of reshuffling the romantic-comedy formula completely, the film revels in and cleverly ridicules the archaic conventions, archetypes, contrivances and clichés out of "When Harry Met Sally…," "Jerry Maguire," "You've Got Mail" and "Wedding Crashers," just to name a few. There's the ne'er-do-well younger brother (Max Greenfield) to Joel, the wisecracking co-worker best friend (Teyonah Parris) to Molly, the wrong man (Ed Helms) Molly might end up marrying, and even a bunch of Joel's basketball buddies (Kenan Thompson, Jack McBrayer, Ken Marino) specify the types of men they are. The characters even acknowledge New York City being its own character in their romantic story, or how a movie of Joel and Molly's relationship would begin with Manhattan aerial shots (which, of course, it does). Screenwriters David Wain and Michael Showalter are well aware that they're playing out such a hackneyed template and send up all of the clichés inherent in the genre, like the "meet cute," the wardrobe-change montage, the "ex" obstacles and misunderstandings, and tossing in "oh, by the way" plot detours. There's no singling out one particular genre representative, and why should it when so many romantic comedies are interchangeable foregone conclusions with an attractive male and female ending up together in the end? 

Being the brainchild of two creators of MTV's now-defunct sketch series "The State," the film is decidedly more of a piece with their specifically weird, freestyling brand of comedy than the commercial, ultimately crowd-pleasing appeal of "Role Models" and "Wanderlust" (both of which starred Paul Rudd as well). It hits a comedic stride when Joel and Molly meet again in the fiction section of the bookstore and then go on a coffee date. Absurdly offbeat touches are also welcome, like when Joel and a bartender's conversation goes on a loop to the fourth power, as are sly little visual gags, like how women in this type of movie practically have bed sheets taped to her chests or the sight of clothing on the floor in the bedroom before we see a fully clothed Joel and Molly cuddling in bed. Watching Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, we know they know the material is deliberately lame and banal and that's what can makes it so highly amusing. As their aw-shucks versions of a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Rudd and Poehler seem to be having a ball, being down for anything and hitting every broad gag with a wholesome smile. The rest of the straight-acting cast, which could be half of a "Wet Hot American Summer" reunion mixed with "SNL" stalwarts, is all working on the level of a sketch—a funny one. And it's always endearing to see Christopher Meloni out of "Law & Order" mode and free to clown around, even as Joel's tough Candy Systems and Research boss who gets stuck in his Halloween costume, a Green Lantern unitard, when he has to, um, relieve himself.

Without spoiling any more of the jokes, some of the humor is of the grin-and-nod variety and other laughs are satisfyingly hearty. As an alternately affectionate and cheerfully mocking goof on romantic comedies, "They Came Together" is sometimes too much on the obvious side, relying on self-aware digs, and not nearly as sharp as it could be. Even if the whole isn't quite up to "Airplane!" or "The Naked Gun" series, it's the right kind of so-stupid-it's-funny, closer to parody than what we've been treated to as of late with an actual lampooning spin. The timing is quick and fastened, and the writing has enough teeth and random surprise to make phony, formulaic, over-lit offerings of the genuine article look even tackier than we thought. In the end, those accustomed to every Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Katherine Heigl starrer will surely get a kick out of it.