Sundance Review: 'They Came Together'

We all know the story: Guy meets girl. Guy and girl have much in common, but their passions are ultimately at odds with one another. Each has a sage best friend, unresolved commitment issues and unfulfilled dreams. Then there’s a race to the altar, and after that, a race to the airport, followed by a very public declaration of love. Roll credits. David Wain knows that story, too, and he’s sick of it. Co-written by Wain and Michael Showalter, “They Came Together” is a proud lampoon of the conventional romantic comedy, taking particular potshots at “You’ve Got Mail” and “When Harry Met Sally…” (Sorry, Meg Ryan and Nora Ephron, you had a good run.)

In this case, Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) meet at a costume party, unaware that Joel’s monolithic employer is gunning for Molly’s local candy shop, a store so sweet that all of their proceeds go to charity -- which is to say, they would if Molly weren’t just giving the candy away. Despite a blustery meet-cute, they come to realize that they both share a favorite kind of book (fiction) and the dream of running a small business (his coffee shop would be called Cup of Joel, of course). But will he fall once more for his cheating ex (Cobie Smulders) while Molly draws the affections of her mild-mannered accountant (Ed Helms)? And what of the corporate takeover? And say, isn’t Manhattan basically like its own character in this story?

Their whole courtship is being related during a double-date with two friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), who point out that their romance sounds just like one of those movies. Wain and company never really let up with this particular mode of winkery, having each of Joel’s buddies vocalize their defining characteristics and value to his personal growth during an otherwise lousy game of hoops, for example. The approach shares the obviousness of “Not Another Teen Movie” in calling out the rom-com genre, and if anything, it causes the film to feel like a mad scramble to tick off the usual story beats, no matter how corny or contrived. (Although intermittently amusing, the aforementioned framing device also feels like an effort to parlay an overall series of sketches into an 83-minute running time.)

Last year’s “I Give It a Year” took a more precisely subversive aim at rom-com conventions, while Wain’s own “Wet Hot American Summer” used ‘80s summer camp romps as a springboard for much stranger humor. “Together” has its own impressive amount of laughs -- ranging from very literal interpretations of tropes (Joel gets caught in a hilarious feedback loop with a concerned bartender) to more oddball asides, including a few fourth-wall breaks and the rare Zucker-like sight gag -- but it rarely feels as incisive as the former or as giddily irreverent as the latter, and the too-bright lighting scheme perfectly suited to the average studio product also has the unfortunate effect of making the film look more like a drawn-out Funny or Die trailer than any of Wain’s previous films had.

No matter the material, the ensemble is certainly game. Rudd and Poehler not only look their respective parts, but share the comedic chemistry and killer timing necessary to offset the phony romance between them. “Wet Hot” alums Christopher Meloni and Michael Ian Black each make a strong impression as Joel’s boss and chief rival, respectively, while Max Greenfield and Teyonah Parris do the best with what they have as Joel’s layabout brother and Molly’s token black friend. There are some swell cameos better left unspoiled, but most disappointing is seeing the talented Melanie Lynskey relegated to mostly straight-faced exchanges instead of getting a rare chance to let loose on-screen.

Still, so much hair-splitting hardly negates the fact that “They Came Together” is a very fast, often very funny riff on a very tired Hollywood formula. One can only hope that the Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl fans of the world will be able to bear its knowing jest.

SCORE: 8.0 / 10