“THEY CAME TOGETHER”– 4 STARS
Hollywood has been making movie parodies even before the days when Abbott and Costello got their chances to meet Frankenstein, the Mummy, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is clearly a niche for the humor required to make fun of yourself and others. Besides, as the old saying by Charles Caleb Colton goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Having a parody made about your work is as clear a sign of success and endearing popularity as awards and box office receipts. Today, the 15-seconds-of-fame internet equivalent is when you make it into a meme. Am I right, Sean Bean? “Game of Thrones” fans must really miss you.
Anyway, the Mount Rushmore of great cinematic parody artists would get very crowed if you added up the connections and influences between the aforementioned Abbot and Costello, the ubiquitous Mel Brooks (“Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Spaceballs”), the ZAZ team of Jim Abraham, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker (“Airplane!,” “The Naked Gun” series, “Hot Shots,” half of the “Scary Movie” series), the “mockumentary” offshoots (“This Is Spinal Tap,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”) of Christopher Guest and his troupe, and the modern contributions of the Wayans brothers (“Scary Movie” series, “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While You’re Drinking Your Juice in the Hood”). Those are just the greats with multiples successes to their credits. Plenty of singular efforts like “Hot Fuzz,” “Undercover Brother,” and dozens of others paint the timeline of cinematic history.
Simply put, parodies are successful because they are familiar and they sell. More often than not, the cheap nature of parodies keeps the budget down and makes them instantly profitable with even a minor splash at the box office. Case in point, all of the “Scary Movie” films have earned over $75 million EACH at the worldwide box office, with two (the first and second) surpassing $200 million. None of them had budgets over $50 million. That’s printing money right there. Even larger on the scale, just ask the Scrooge McDucks over at Dreamworks Animation what it feels like swimming in $3.5 billion of combined “Shrek” earnings. Mike Myers can fill his own vault with over $675 million of “Austin Powers” cash. Heck, even the recent four-year/five-movie streak by the middling filmmaking team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, consisting of “Date Movie,” “Epic Movie,” “Meet the Spartans,” “Disaster Movie,” and “Vampires Suck,” have scored a grand total north of $370 million. It’s almost too easy.
Very few parodies don’t make their money back. Money aside, an equal few of them are very good films worth your time at all. Each of those Friedberg/Seltzer movies, for all of their profits, have scored 6% or under on Rotten Tomatoes. They might be laughing all the way to the bank, but that’s an ugly lack of quality. The best parodies that stand the test of time for repeat viewing are the ones that combine a quality of humor and smartness above the rest. Their complexity supersedes being a single and disposable piece of entertainment that only makes easy jokes. The best are impeccably clever with their approach and delivery. They elaborately take the more difficult route of emphasizing subtle and sly elements over repetitive shock value and sight gags.
That said, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we might have a new entry into the pantheon of parody classics with the recent release “They Came Together.” The new comedy from director David Wain, best known to audiences for “Wanderlust,” “Role Models,” and “Wet Hot American Summer,” checks all of those above boxes for being a great parody. The film is packed with smart humor, joke complexity, clever approaches, and an elaborate sense of storybuilding and delivery that most parodies lack. Best of all, Wain assembles a near-perfect cast of his old pals, led by Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, that never cease to entertain.
The extremely ripe genre of romantic comedies is the comedy mark of “They Came Together.” Rudd and Poehler play Joel and Molly. We meet them on a double-date swanky New York City dinner with new friends Kyle and Karen (former “Saturday Night Live” star Bill Hader and for “The Office” resident Ellie Kemper). The Double K’s throw out the casual conversation question how Joel and Molly met. Expecting a short answer, they instead set off a massively over-detailed trip down memory lane for Joel and Molly which becomes our movie.
In very “You’ve Got Mail” fashion, Joel was a supposedly soul-less suit for a candy conglomerate that was targeting to shut down a little mom-and-pop candy store run by Molly. Joel was obliviously in love with his shallow hot girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) that didn’t love him back. The happy-go-lucky, plucky, and clumsy Molly was constantly unlucky in courtship and lacked any options that caught her eye. When Joel’s engagement attempt monumentally fails, his best friend Bob (Jason Mantzoukas of “The League”) set him up to meet Molly, a friend of his wife, at their annual Halloween party.
When they bumped into each other on the street dressed in matching Ben Franklin costumes on the way to the party, Joel and Molly are “hate” at first sight. Slowly, but surely, through the rest of the holiday season, the hate quickly faded into puppy love affection and progressed to the typical commitment phobia and and hurdles you’ve seen in every romantic comedy. While the arc may be predictable on purpose, the twists and turns along the way are anything but. More often than not, your befuddled and surprised expressions will match those of Karen and Kyle hearing this long story of love over glasses of wine.
“They Came Together” won’t be everyone’s speed of comedy. While brilliantly threaded to fit together as a legitimate movie, some set pieces can feel like wayward “Saturday Night Live” skits, but the unification of each of them is sound. Not all of the jokes work, but what does is gold and far outnumbers the misses. The trivial and absurd premises and commonalities of Hollywood romantic comedies get rightly skewered in all directions. While rightly R-rated for language, the film doesn’t dive toward the low-hanging fruit and into the mud pit of pushing censors. Wain, the actors, and his co-writer and producer Michael Showalter make superb choices. There’s a smooth guile and canniness to what trope gets targeted and how, even when profanity is involved. Some cliches are heightened and taken literally while others are twisted or blown up all together.
None of this could be achieved without the convincing acting of Rudd, Poehler, and their peers. Both Paul and Amy know exactly how to keep a straight face to sell absurdity and entertainment. Their combined dreamy chemistry and wit could sell sand to an Egyptian. They are two of the best at “go-for-broke” in the business and they make it looks so easy. Around them, so many actors and actresses get little moments to shine. In larger roles, the likes of Christopher Meloni, Ed Helms, and Michael Ian Black steal scenes, while slick cameos from Norah Jones, Adam Scott, Jack McBrayer, Kenan Thompson, Zak Orth, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Michael Shannon, and John Stamos each have their purpose and value to the overall gag being orchestrated.
Overall, “They Came Together” takes aim towards a much higher brow of humor than the overt trash of “Scary Movie” and the other parodies we’ve been force-fed for the last decade and a half. Those lesser parodies borrow, steal and copy too many direct scenes from the movies they are imitating. The smart parodies like “Young Frankenstein” and “The Naked Gun” borrow the same ideas but stage them in their own prismatic way that is familiar, but rightly skewed, wholly different, and all their own. “They Came Together” has that quality of sharp homage over simple replication.
LESSON #1: REAL LOVE NEVER HAPPENS LIKE IT DOES IN THE MOVIES— This is the lesson where I could go on for pages listing all of the ridiculous and preposterous romantic comedy cliches that some gullible people think should happen in real life romance. Romantic comedies are corny on purpose. They are produced and packaged. Inspiration is fine, but life doesn’t work that way. Real love doesn’t happen in a three-act story arc. Real love doesn’t happen over coffee. There are peaks and valleys that never match the peaks and valleys you see in the movies. “They Came Together” goes out of its way to hammer that point home with humor. Other parodies do it with cynicism and sarcasm. This one does it with reckless and intentional over-belief.
LESSON #2: STOP THINKING YOUR SETTING IS A CHARACTER IS YOUR LOVE STORY— Another fun point that gets blasted is the romantic notion that your setting for love is another character in your story. New York City is the prime target being made fun of here. Do think you’re the only one that made that little coffee shop your first date? Do you think you’re the only that has played in the park with that girl that could be the one? Come on. A city may be filled with eclectic details and characters, but it’s still just a setting and a backdrop. Sure, it’s home, but it’s not that special and it’s something you share with millions of others, lessening its supposed uniqueness.
LESSON #3: THE LONG VERSION OF THE “STORY OF YOU” INTERESTS NO ONE— Kyle and Karen thought they were getting a quick little story with a nod and an aside, but didn’t expect the quirky movie that developed for Joel and Molly. Like they do, you’ll soon see why this lesson is true. Yes, it’s cute that everyone has their own lovely little story about how you met, courted, or lost the love of your life, but “ain’t nobody got time for that.” If it’s as long as a novel, put it in a novel. Don’t share every inconsequential detail over an awkward dinner with friends. Condense, revise, and paraphrase a short version for short situations. When time allows, then drop the long version. Sheez!