The new film They Came Together is the kind of spoof only someone intimately familiar with romantic comedy conventions could make. And director and screenwriter David Wain is the first to admit that he loves rom-com. The movie centers on Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler), a pair of attractive, nice New Yorkers with lives so formlessly bland they come across as utterly insane. They meet cute, they hate each other until they realize they’ve fallen in love, there’s a twist, and another twist, and of course, a dramatic happy ending.
They Came Together opened in theaters this weekend after premiering at Sundance earlier this year, but it’s a project Wain and his co-writer and longtime collaborator Michael Showalter have been planning for a while — they’d hoped to make it their follow-up to Wain’s 2001 directorial debut Wet Hot American Summer, but it took years for the film to finally get made. The result is a star-studded parody that’s sharp but affectionate, including nods to When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail as well as plenty of gags that reference nothing but Wain’s particular sense of humor. He talked BuzzFeed through some of his favorite clichés of the genre that turn up in the movie.
Molly’s got a picture-perfect life — she’s the owner of a charming candy shop and lives in an adorable brownstone — but is massively clumsy. “All of the faults that romantic comedy characters have are basically cute and meaningless,” Wain noted. “No one has actual, real problems, or real character flaws, because the characters are so often designed to be appealing almost to a scientific level.” Wain’s particularly fond of how self-pleased Molly seems to be with her own blundering. “One of my favorite moments is her walking out the door, toward the beginning of the movie, of her apartment and having a look on her face that says, Oh, life is just so crazy, but what the hell. I can deal with it!”
In the movie, Molly observes that Joel, who’s a business executive, is “kind of a typical romantic comedy leading man — he’s handsome, but in a nonthreatening way; vaguely, but not overtly Jewish.” And Rudd’s indeed been the leading man in his fair share of rom-coms. “It’s the kind of character that you would always go to Tom Hanks for,” said Wain. “And now, probably Paul Rudd gets offered these parts. Strip away anything complex or that’s actually problematic with this guy, and have him be not only nonthreatening, but open-minded and gullible to the point of being near brain-dead.”
“New York, in a way, is so intrinsic to the story that we’re telling, you could almost think of it as another character,” Wain said, deadpan. It’s a theme that actually crops up again and again in the movie: “There’s another character that’s just as important…New York City,” the leads say guilelessly when telling friends the story of how they met. There’s even a note in red saying as much at the bottom of the poster (above). But the New York of the movie, like any good rom-com, is “the most ridiculous, crime-free, dirt-free, storybook, no-chain-stores version of New York City.” Its upscale characters claim to love nothing more than a “cheese danish from Zabars” and “reading the Sunday Times.” Wain drew this depiction in particular from the “uptown, Upper West Side” New York of Woody Allen, Nancy Meyers, and Nora Ephron films.
“Part of what I think is funny about the classic romantic comedy arc is that so many of the stakes have to happen so quickly,” Wain pointed out. “They don’t like each other at first, then they do, then they break up, then they get back together, and all of those things have to happen on a certain page number of the script, so it was fun playing around with that.” In They Came Together, Molly and Joel bond over a shared love of…fiction books. “They think of fiction as this esoteric interest, that it would be incredible that you meet another person that also has the same interest in something so general.” And indeed, after one of those breakups, Molly goes on a date with the earnest, bland accountant Eggbert (Ed Helms), who doesn’t care for fiction books. “Yeah, but they’re not real, you know that, right?” he asks.
They Came Together takes gleeful pleasure in trotting out every possible type of stock pal that rom-coms tend to have, played by actors like Jason Mantzoukas, Ken Marino, Jack McBrayer, Melanie Lynskey, Teyonah Parris, and Kenan Thompson. “We wanted to make sure we hit every base with the friends. It was important to us that Amy’s character have a type-A TV producer friend, who’s in a solid marriage and does it all, and then also have the subservient black best friend who’s there just to echo or support whatever she’s thinking of doing. And of course, the bitter, divorced, resentful older sister,” Wain said.
Joel has a scene in which he plays basketball with his friends, who all conveniently represent blatant different points of view on relationships — “the ethnic, funny best friend; the most thoughtful, poetic best friend; the lothario, sex-crazed best friend; the happily married family man.” Then, there’s Joel’s younger brother Jake (Max Greenfield), who even awkwardly refers to his sibling as “big brother” in conversation, and who just needs to learn to grow up and be more reliable. Spoiler alert: He does.
Everyone in the movie lives in impossibly massive spaces, but They Came Together has the most fun with Joel’s home. “You’d have to be a gazillionaire to live on the Upper West Side in an apartment that big,” Wain said. “Mark White, our production designer, had such a good time putting together perfectly chosen generic bric-a-brac that has no indication of personality to it — stolen street signs, the bike hanging from the roof, the pinball machine, the exposed brick.” The result looks like a wealthy bachelor pad version of a TGI Fridays. “We spent a lot of time to make it look like the TV or movie idea of what this guy is, which is basically ‘no hard edges.’”
No romantic comedy would be complete without a dramatic ending that preferably involves someone running to stop a flight or a marriage, and They Came Together doesn’t disappoint. “Without giving too much of a spoiler … Joel shows up and stops her wedding to Eggbert and then, they end up getting married at the end,” Wain cheerily explained. “You can’t do a romantic comedy parody without that scene of him running somewhere.”
And of course, the big finish also brings back seemingly every character and neatly concludes each of their arcs, the nice people rewarded and the mean ones punished. “In fact, we had in the script — and we shot a lot of this — where every single storyline, even the ones we just randomly dropped in there, was tied up at the end … We had a little button for every single storyline. But it, in fact, actually took too long.”