As a film and TV director, David Wain is best known for Wet Hot American Summer, the 2008 box-office hit Role Models, the webseries Wainy Days and several episodes of Rob Corddry's Childrens Hospital (the absence of an apostrophe between the N and S is intentional, by the way, because the Corddry show's titular hospital was founded by a weirdo named Arthur Childrens). But I think the quintessential Wain film--even more so than either of those works--is one that the State sketch comedy troupe alum and Stella member directed way before Wet Hot: the 1997 short film "Finishing the Novel," starring Wain and Amanda Peet. The three-minute short (think of all the plodding SNL sketches that could have been improved if they had been whittled down to just three minutes!) isn't just one of my favorite shorts of all time. It's also the kind of short I wish I had the ingenuity to come up with every few weeks instead of every few years.
In "Finishing the Novel," Wain (who can currently be seen as Riki Lindhome's very gay husband on Comedy Central's Another Period) plays the world's most inept romance novelist, prone to repeating the same mistake over the course of three years and perhaps forever. The short is basically three minutes of well-off and photogenic but really dumb New Yorkers doing the most nonsensical and surreal things over and over (the weird childlike voice Wain directed Peet, who plays his wife, to speak in also has a lot to do with the short's charms), and it's the same type of absurdist humor that permeates Wain's New York rom-com parody They Came Together and turns it into one of the funniest and cleverest spoof movies of the last few years, along with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Black Dynamite and MacGruber ("Finishing the Novel" is also key to understanding the strange vibe of They Came Together and the much stranger vibe of both Wet Hot and Wain's 2007 sketch comedy/anthology movie hybrid The Ten).
What separates the makers of They Came Together, Walk Hard, Black Dynamite and MacGruber from the Jason Friedbergs and Aaron Seltzers and Scary Movies of the world is that even when they're taking the piss out of the hoariest Hollywood clichés, they bring to it both a genuine love for whatever genre they're spoofing--Wain and his They Came Together writing partner Michael Showalter have frequently said they're fans of rom-coms despite how brutally they make fun of them--and a sense of style. Those are two things that can't be said about the Friedberg/Seltzer factory and the Scary/Superhero/Date/Epic/Disaster/Haunted Movie template, the epitome of heartless, cynical, lazily written and indifferently produced comedy filmmaking. There's no genuine love for the genres they spoof; it's just a shapeless and pointless jumble of unfunny and already dated references to shit that has very little to do with whatever recent box-office hit they're re-creating, like the Stomp the Yard references and Paula Abdul impressions (Nicole Parker, why?!) during the 300 spoof Meet the Spartans.
Neither is there any panache or style to these ugly-looking Scary/Superhero/Date/Epic/Disaster/Haunted movies that must have cost five cents to shoot, whereas They Came Together, Walk Hard and MacGruber--and over on the small-screen side, any Key & Peele genre parody sketch like the "Sex Detective" parody of Hannibal and other similar criminal profiler shows--are all exquisitely photographed in spite of being saddled with equally low budgets. They Came Together, Walk Hard, MacGruber and Key & Peele are attempting to be visually indistinguishable from the big-budget, handsomely shot dreck they're spoofing. Tom Houghton, They Came Together's cinematographer, looks like he actually gives a fuck. The montage of Paul Rudd's Joel and Amy Poehler's Molly frolicking all over the streets and parks of Brooklyn--which hilariously transforms into a fake DVD featurette about Norah Jones recording the montage music--is so handsomely lit and genuinely pleasant to look at (just like the work of Orange Is the New Black cinematographer Yaron Orbach during the "Gretchen Mol bangs Jesus Christ" segment of The Ten) that it causes sight gags like Joel and Molly's obliviousness to a dead body in a park to pay off more effectively than if they were shot with the customary cruddiness the Friedberg/Seltzer factory brings to its product.
When Esquire staff writer Matt Patches gave Friedberg and Seltzer a chance to defend their much-maligned approach to the spoof movie in a Grantland profile of their partnership as "Hollywood's purveyors of not giving a shit," Patches wrote that "The men are only moderately concerned about shelf life; Meet the Spartans contains multiple references to shaved-head, mental-breakdown-era Britney Spears." And there you have the fundamental difference between the writing in Friedberg/Seltzer spoof movies and the writing in Wain spoof movies. Wain's more absurdist movies aren't concerned with playing "Spot the Timely Reference" with the audience, and they're as far away as possible from the laziness of "Say, if we just toss in this scene of a celebrity impersonator dressed up as a currently-in-the-headlines pop star, the test screening audience will automatically eat it up."
Like Wet Hot (which Wain actually doesn't consider to be a spoof movie, even when it parodied '80s training montages and did it brilliantly, a year before South Park did the same thing during "Asspen") and many of the Wain-directed Childrens Hospital episodes before it, They Came Together isn't too specific about the movies or shows it's parodying. Sure, Joel and Molly's mismatched business exec/small business owner romance echoes the plot of You've Got Mail, but it's more of a hodgepodge of all the clichés of every single oil-and-water coupling in a modern rom-com. The film's more concerned with mocking unnoticeable-to-a-casual-moviegoer things like badly done ADR ("Basketball, basketball, basketball...") and that old press junket line "New York is like another character" (which I'm sometimes guilty of saying too) or those clichéd moments we're familiar with from rom-coms but have difficulty remembering word-for-word (or where exactly we saw those moments) because all those rom-coms are so damn interchangeable.
One of those clichés is the way almost every heart-to-heart conversation between the lead character and a wise family member in rom-coms ends with that lead running off and then pivoting back to earnestly say thanks to the wacky sibling or grandma (the amusingly prolonged "thanks"-off between Rudd and Max Greenfield, who plays Joel's ne'er-do-well younger brother, at the end of one particular heart-to-heart conversation is classic Wain absurdism). Wain's approach to the spoof movie is, as a result, timeless and more likely to hold up to repeat viewings than bald Britney sight gags. Why do you think Wet Hot is more beloved now than when it quietly tanked at the box office back in 2001? Wet Hot's cult popularity and lasting appeal are partly due to both Wain's timeless approach and his preference for absurdist gags over "Hmm, which box-office hits and showbiz headlines from last month can we shoehorn into our next movie?"
In fact, They Came Together's two funniest moments have nothing to do with rom-coms and have everything to do with Wain and Showalter just being their usual absurdist selves and entertainingly playing around with language, whether it's to make fun of how bizarre many phone conversations sound in real life when the person on the other end of the line isn't audible or to make fun of how clunky and silly a lot of overly expositional dialogue sounds in any kind of movie, rom-com or non-rom-com. The scene that made me laugh the loudest again during the second time I watched They Came Together was not its most talked-about scene, the bar scene that's like an updated version of the old "Pete and Repeat went to the store" joke, but the brief gag where Joel's assistant (Noureen DeWulf from the 2007 sports movie spoof The Comebacks) shares on the phone saucy and intimate bedroom details with what we assume to be her BFF and instead it turns out to be her dad. I also love how Molly's sister and housemate (Childrens Hospital regular Zandy Hartig, Wain's wife) feels the need to explain to Molly who Molly's ex-husband (an uncharacteristically goofy Michael Shannon) is even though she lives under the same roof with Molly.
Some of these gags, particularly the intentionally clunky-sounding lines of exposition, are pretty subtle and can be easy to miss in an initial viewing because of how dead-on they are about by-the-numbers Hollywood dialogue, just like how when I first saw Black Dynamite, I didn't notice how one of the actors was making fun of flubbed line readings--a staple of '70s blaxploitation flicks that were so amateurishly made that nobody would notice those flubs and fix them in post--by saying aloud the stage directions along with his dialogue ("Sarcastically, I'm in charge"). Speaking of not noticing jokes, test screening audiences were confused by They Came Together. They didn't understand it was a rom-com spoof, so Wain and Showalter tacked on as a framing device a bunch of additional scenes with Joel and Molly recalling how they met while out on a double date with a younger couple (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), in order to remind audiences that they're watching a spoof. In an insightful They Came Together panel discussion moderated by Jeff Goldsmith for his filmmaking podcast The Q&A, Showalter defended the last-minute addition of the framing device and said, "We want people to get the joke. We don't want people to see this and feel alienated by it, which is what happened with Wet Hot. We didn't want people to hate that movie. We like that some people love it, but I personally don't like the fact that a lot of people hate it. I want everyone to get it."
During that same panel discussion, Showalter mentions that he and Wain considered opting for a "Lost Ending of It's a Wonderful Life"-style concept of "This Rudd and Poehler movie was too good to be released and we found it" as the framing device, which I think would have worked better as a framing device than Hader constantly interjecting commentary about the ridiculousness of the rom-com tropes that brought Joel and Molly together. I'm of two minds about the double date scenes. The need to explain that everything's a joke causes They Came Together to pale slightly to Wet Hot as a Wain movie, but at the same time, without the double date scenes, we wouldn't have gotten Hader's funny delivery of "You can have the pussy, just save me the hole" and this split-second, freeze-frame-worthy sight gag of Rudd pretending to drink wine before the camera cuts away:
Can we talk for a second about how much Rudd and Poehler elevate They Came Together? I don't care for the rom-com genre, but Rudd and Poehler's comedic skills and their ability to play things completely straight even during the most nonsensical moments are a huge part of why They Came Together is one of the few rom-coms I'll admit to liking. The two stars are, just like everyone else in the film's cast (hell, that goes for everyone else in the casts of Wain's other films as well), enjoyably game for anything, like Rudd's unapologetically tasteless moment with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire's Lynn Cohen as Joel's bubby, which has to tie with his mirror scene in Wanderlust as his craziest moment in a Wain movie. I originally thought the scene where Joel gets turned on by his bubby after she gives him love advice--and she then hops into his arms--was intended to be a riff on a really sappy and mediocre rom-com I watched on an airplane in 1992, I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore, an indie that paired up Jason Alexander (as a Jewish mama's boy who wants to lose weight) with Nia Peeples (as a really hot Italian American musician who, like all of Alexander's love interests on Seinfeld, is way out of the schlub's league). I later found out the scene is actually a riff on Crossing Delancey, forever ruining Crossing Delancey for fans of that 1988 rom-com by adding incest.
They Came Together can currently be streamed on Netflix, but the downside of They Came Together as a streaming title is that viewers are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy what has to be one of my favorite DVD/Blu-ray extras, a video recording of Rudd, Poehler and some of their future They Came Together co-stars participating in a 2012 SF Sketchfest live read of an early draft of the They Came Together script, which Wain originally intended to make for Universal as his follow-up to Wet Hot (when They Came Together fell apart at Universal, Wain, Showalter and Michael Ian Black concentrated on bringing to life the underappreciated Stella TV show). The video and audio quality for that 103-minute extra on the They Came Together Blu-ray is subpar, but the live read is worthwhile for both glimpsing the differences (and similarities) between the early draft and the final result and checking out the actors' reactions to the script as they're reading it for the first time.
You get to see Wain's Wanderlust writing partner Ken Marino--who steals, no pun intended, They Came Together's basketball court scene with just his repetitive delivery of "Swish!" and is also Wain, Showalter and Black's old castmate from The State--shaking his head in silent disbelief over the weirdness of the script. You also find out which lines from the script cause Rudd to laugh so hard he winds up in tears during the live read. One of those lines is "Oh God, Bubby, I wanna fuck you so bad."
This is why I like Rudd. He now goes down in history as the first Marvel Cinematic Universe star to have ever said, "Oh God, Bubby, I wanna fuck you so bad."
None of the original songs from They Came Together are currently in rotation on AFOS, but Craig Wedren and Pink Ape's catchy "Say You Love Me" ought to be. Wedren, a childhood friend of Wain's who has scored so many of Wain's projects, including "Finishing the Novel" and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, talks about how simpatico his musical and comedic instincts are with Wain's while plugging the score he wrote with Matt Novack for They Came Together in a lengthy but clickworthy emPOWERme.tv interview.