‘They Came Together:’ Almost Stella-r

David Wain brings his brand of off-kilter, super silly meta mockery to a more genre-specific place than usual with his spoofy romantic comedy, They Came Together. The comedy dream team of Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler play Joel and Molly, who narrate the larger-than-life story of the development of their relationship through a framework of dinner with friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper). It’s a much more obvious genre play than his other films, Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, The Ten, and Wanderlust, and while still laden with absurdist hilarity, it’s unnecessarily overt.

The lovebirds, Joel and Molly, were on again and off again, almost married to other people, business rivals, happy in love, not so happy, happy again, really unhappy, and back to happy. Molly is the owner of a boutique candy shop, while Joel is a corporate drone for the large and impersonal Candy Systems and Research. They meet and hit it off over a mutual love of “fiction books” at the Strand Bookstore, in one of the film’s best sequences. It’s a made-for-movie romance, as they remind us repeatedly throughout.

The movie is full of genre conventions (New York City as a character all its own, a klutzy, cutesy leading lady), direct references to the genre it makes fun of (You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally), and David Wain’s signature stuff. He has several types of go-to joke structures that compose and define his oeuvre. There are conventional situations in which he switches out an object for comedic effect (Joel, as a magic trick, pulls a hamburger from behind a kid’s ear). A second Wain-y custom includes repetition to such an exaggerated point it becomes not funny and then funny again, as evidenced in a “You can say that again,” sequence that’s longer than you ever thought you would sit through. A third is an overarching Stella-like smarminess to his characters, where syllables and shoulder shrugs are drawn out and hit hard to highlight and make funny the specifics of the stereotypes.

It’s Wain’s jokes that shine the brightest here. The over-stated plays on the romantic comedy genre sometimes fall a little flat, unless they’re Wain-ified. Most of the time, they are, but I didn’t find them necessary. Rudd and Poehler are funny as always, as are Cobie Smulders and Ed Helms and staples of Wainland, Michael Ian Black and Chris Meloni. But you never really forget that it’s Rudd and Poehler up there. There’s too much of a story that the characters are used as pawns rather than as living, breathing beings that are easy to identify with. They’re merely caricatures of their movie types, which works for the completion of the satire of the genre, but not as well for making it a movie to connect with on an emotional level. The heart of Wet Hot and even Role Models just isn’t there. It doesn’t make it less funny; it just makes it less of a classic.

Grade: B+

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