They Came Together: Sundance Review

Sendup of hackneyed romances is less than the sum of its often funny parts.

Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler play a very familiar couple in David Wain's deconstruction of rom-com cliches.

Movie lovers of America: Are you sitting down? David Wain and Michael Showalter have something they need to tell you. You know those romantic comedies you go see once or twice a month? They're all. The same. Movie.

This troubling assertion is demonstrated in Wain's They Came Together, which deconstructs the rom-com into its many cookie-cutter parts. A great many of these individual scenes are funny, and you could hardly ask for a better cast than the one led by Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, who play the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks types who are so wrong for each other they just have to be right. But the film fails to do what those rare, immortal rom-coms get right: take all of its individually pleasing ingredients and make a satisfying movie out of them. Lionsgate should get a decent weekend or two out of the gimmick and marquee cast, but box-office dropoff will likely be precipitous after that.

The film begins at a Greenwich Village restaurant where Molly (Poehler) and Joel (Rudd), evidently a couple of long standing, are asked by their double-date buddies (Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader) to recall how they got together. Even before the flashbacks begin, we're knee-deep in the cliched language of the Hollywood romance. The setup is essentially You've Got Mail, with books replaced by sweets: Molly runs a cutesy little candy store, and Joel works for a heartless corporation about to open a sugary superstore across the street. (Forget The Shop Around the Corner, which inspired Mail: This is a parody of the Nora Ephron epoch that leaves her antecedents untarnished.)

It may not come as a surprise to know that each character has a supportive and/or wisecracking good friend; that they hate each other when they first meet, despite feeling a strong physical attraction; that when they do acknowledge their attraction and start dating, each is held back by the ghosts of earlier failed relationships. Wain and co-screenwriter Showalter take pains to show that they know we know this is all a stale template. They further work to ensure that we know that they know that we know. But then they drop clues that they know we know that they know that we -- if you think this is tiresome, try to run out for popcorn during the sequence when a bartender tells Joel he looks like he's had a hard day and Joel replies, "You can say that again."

The screenplay blazes through expected plot points at such a pace -- with little breathing room for the kind of detail and characterization that distinguishes one story from another -- that viewers might expect the movie to have wrapped up by the 45-minute mark. It's a little hard to explain how it continues to 83 minutes, frankly. Even allowing for storytelling breaks in which we're back at that Greenwich Village grill -- with Hader and Kemper as tired of the yarn as we are -- there's so much nothing here that it seems like it should fit in an hourlong basic cable slot, even with commercials.

The problem isn't just the winking tone. In fact, one of the funniest moments early on has Poehler quickly glancing at the camera to make sure we're in on the joke. It's that winking and straightforward genre rehash, with dialogue baldly stating what each scene is supposed to add to the plot, is practically all the film offers. Though it occasionally throws in an absurdist gag having nothing to do with the format being parodied, these are minor flourishes in an exercise whose strict structure doesn't even allow its leads to charm us.

A movie that made us fall in love with its leads while still mocking its depiction of their courtship might deserve to be called subversive. But They Came Together isn't much trickier than the intentionally lame double entendre in its title.

Production: Lionsgate

Cast: Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Ed Helms, Cobie Smulders, Max Greenfield, Christopher Meloni, Michael Ian Black

Director: David Wain

Screenwriters: David Wain, Michael Showalter

Producer: Michael Showalter

Executive producers: David Wain, Peter Principato, Paul Young, Matt Kaplan, Tony Hernandez

Director of photography: Tom Houghton

Production designer: Mark White

Costume designer: Dana Covarrubias

Editor: Jamie Gross

Music: Craig Wedren, Matt Novack

No rating, 83 minutes