Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler play painfully stereotypical lovebirds in rom-com spoof "They Came Together."
If NYC single life actually resembled every bad rom-com ever, I’d be telling you about my ultimate meet-cute right now: me, a feminist media critic alone at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to review a movie for Bitch, him a handsome, witty stranger reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine. Our banter would have been hilarious and hot, and he’d even have quoted my book to me, just like Carrie Fisher did to Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally. Instantly smitten, this progressive policy wonk by day, comedy geek by night would have offered to share his popcorn, and you know what have happened next: our fingers would’ve touched, sparks would’ve flown, and we would not have spent a night apart since.
But since romantic comedies are made of sunlight and bullshit, the stranger sitting next to me at BAM's screening of the new Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd spoof They Came Together was so irate over my note-taking on a low-light laptop that he yelled, "This is unbelievable!" and stormed off to a different row.
So much for dating in New York City, which, as director and co-writer David Wain repeatedly insisted to BAM's audience before last week's screening "is almost like another character in the movie." If you doubt how much he wants you to know that, check the all-caps, red-font heads-up on the film's website: "PLEASE NOTE: NEW YORK CITY PLAYS SUCH A CENTRAL ROLE IN THIS STORY, IT IS ALMOST LIKE ANOTHER CHARACTER IN THE MOVIE."
They Came Together, which debuted in limited release last week and is available on demand, parodies classic romantic comedies like You’ve Got Mail, centering around the location-specific love story between quirky candy shop owner Molly, played by Amy Poehler, and her nemesis, candy conglomerate executive Joel, played by Paul Rudd. In fact, Molly's first line in the film is that Joel “can't even leave the Upper West Side of Manhattan." Joel confirms, waxing rhapsodic about Zabars and the New York Times to their friends Karen and Kyle (Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader), who provide the film's framing device by asking how they met.
"It's kind of a corny romantic comedy kind of story," Molly deadpans over wine at dinner. Joel was “a typical romantic comedy leading man… handsome, but in a nonthreatening way. Vaguely but not overtly Jewish." For his part, Joel explains, "Molly is the kind of cute klutzy girl that sometimes will drive you a little bit crazy but you can't help but fall in love with her." We hear about Karen and Kyle’s own meet-cute (they met while debating on a panel at the Guggenheim!), and then Kyle announces that a movie about Joel and Molly would open with "aerial shots of the Manhattan skyline" -- cut to that cliched montage, followed by a flashback of their pre-relationship lives: Joel pillow-talks a morning "I love you" to his cold, fashion industry girlfriend, Tiffany (Cobie Smulders), who replies, "And I admire your spirit." (In the first of many broad sight gags, Tiffany gets up and stretches her arms over her head, her bedsheet miraculously molded to her torso like a strapless gown.) Pan to Molly, who was sharing her bed only with her pet dog after a bad breakup. She proves her klutzy bona fides by tripping over her nightstand, knocking over a stack of papers, getting buried under an avalanche of falling shoeboxes, and tumbling down an entire flight of stairs only to jump up, quickly pat her hair back into place, and twirl off into the workday, flashing a beatific Disney-esque smile.
They Came Together is over-the-top stupid, in the most exuberant, silliest and, yet smartest of ways… but you’ll only enjoy it if you get it, much like Airplane! and other classic goofball parodies. I count eight rom-com conventions spoofed in the first five minutes alone—even before the main characters meet in matching Ben Franklin knickers and bald caps on their way to being fixed up at a Halloween party. That's just the beginning. There's also:
The corporate raider who destroys the lady entrepreneur's small business but she loves him anyway, a la You've Got Mail.
The quirky female lead with a precious job and no head for business, a la Kristen Wiig’s baker in Bridesmaids.
The sassy Black assistant/sidekick/friend who has barely any life, interests, or character definition beyond serving the white lead: Jennifer Hudson underused in Sex and the City and Viola Davis' wasted role in Eat, Pray, Love. Here, Teyonah Parris plays Wanda, Molly's Upper Sweet Side candy shop employee and de facto best friend, who utters a total of zero lines that aren't about Molly's life.
The "Love Sprint," where a no-longer-clueless lead makes like a marathoner through a city, airport, or countryside to declare undying devotion to their love interest just in the nick of time, often to interrupt a wedding, usually in front of a zillion onlookers (a la When Harry Met Sally, Love Actually, and What’s Your Number?).
The “Crash! Bang! Nookie!”: a la Kissing Jessica Stein, in their urgent and inevitable path to the bedroom, Joel and Molly break a lamp, knock over a series of bookcases, and because that wasn’t enough property damage, Molly throws a vase against the wall in the bedroom while they make out.
The grand gesture in a very public place (like the boardroom in Hitch, the airplane in The Wedding Singer, the press conference in Notting Hill, the ballfield in Never Been Kissed, and the school in Crazy, Stupid Love) takes place here at the Brooklyn Promenade.
The plush New York loft that could only belong to the 1% in real life, yet magically exists for Movieland’s middle class (see: most NYC-based Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, and Kate Hudson flicks). This apartment often comes furnished with a slacker sibling who crashes rent-free, as does Max Greenfield as Joel’s little brother Jake.
The male commitment-phobe who seeks romantic guidance from a group of buddies, like Ludacris in No Strings Attached or Patrick Dempsey in Made of Honor. Here, director David Wain has Joel talking marriage during an on-the-nose basketball game with a neutral pal (Jason Mantzoukas), a promiscuous bro (Ken Marino: "The point of love is to get laid!"), a happy family man (Kenan Thompson: "Being married is great! That's the point of view I represent!”), and a poet (Jack McBrayer: "You get it now, mister Combines Traits That Each Of Us Represents and All You Need To Do Is Put It All Together and You'll Be Just Fine guy?").
The afterthought child who shows up only in two scenes ("Are you my new daddy?"), because single moms don't have mundane parenting responsibilities and never talk about their kids unless the movie is specifically about how terrible it is to be a single mom.
… and plenty of others.
Director David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter apply the rapid-fire pacing of The Naked Gun and the zany tone of their absurdist cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer to knowingly skewer the rom-com genre's litany of tired scenarios (Joel nurses heartbreak on a shivering, grayscale evening stroll, passing the same smooth jazz-playing saxophonist on every corner), banal dialog ("You like fiction books?" Molly gasps, aghast that Joel shares her generic interest, gushing, "Fiction books is one of my favorite kinds of books!"), and cliched archetypes. How do we know that Men Are Low-Maintenance while Women Are Unnecessarily Complicated? Why, by hearing Molly’s 27-second soliloquy of nonsensical instructions for how Joel should place her order at a coffee shop—he repeats it verbatim, adding only "and I'll have a coffee." The barista is unphased: "Coffee and a #3!" she shouts, the whole ludicrous rant chalked on the blackboard menu.
I genuinely can’t remember another comedy in recent years that has more genuine laughs packed into each minute. Poehler’s brilliant comedic timing and Rudd’s deceptively adorable manner winningly send up both their characters. Ed Helms, Christopher Meloni, Melanie Lynskey and other bit players add to the movie’s mirth. The writing is airtight, from canny restaurant conversation with the scene-stealing Kemper and Hader to out-of-nowhere white supremacists and Judge Judy cameos. Even the cheesy soundtrack offers pitch-perfect parody: a "happy frolicking couple" montage set to a fluffy Norah Jones song is interrupted by fourth-wall-breaking, on-screen-captioned Rudd and Poehler "checkin' out the recording session!" with Jones and several celebrity friends.
After the screening last week at BAM, the cast stuck around for a Q&A. I told Poehler I was reviewing the movie for Bitch and asked about her least favorite trope about women in rom-coms. “I feel a lot of pressure to be a real bitch on this one!” she joked.
“Women are always saving themselves for the one” in movies like these, Poehler said, adding that while relationships are great, the single-minded focus for female characters to find true love irks her. Her solution? Rom-coms should have “more casual sex.” Amen to that, Amy.
Amy Poehler, fielding questions at her film's screening last week. Photo by Jennifer L. Pozner.
I asked the same question of Ellie Kemper four days later, after her improv comedy team, “Let’s Have a Ball,” brought down the house at the sixteenth annual Del Close Marathon (organized by the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, which Poehler co-founded in 1999). Though it was the middle of the night after a performance, Kemper was gracious and forthcoming.
“I'm not wild about the ‘best friend who has it all together,’ portrayed as extremely successful in her career, deep in the rapture of a flawless relationship with the love of her life, impeccably dressed and exquisitely groomed, and very, very busy,” Kemper said. The unrealistic messages this sends to women can make us feel like we have to measure up to an impossible ideal, she told me. “If I knew this woman, I would never be friends with her, because a) I would hate her, and b) I am not friends with IMAGINARY PEOPLE. I have never met a woman like this in real life, and every time I begin to fantasize that there is, in fact, a woman like this out there, I have to check myself. Putting characters like this in romantic comedy films only reinforces the idea that you, too, can be perfect, if only you had your act together. And that's just not true!”
That’s one of many things that are just not true about most women in rom-coms. As enjoyable as They Came Together is, the film’s only disappointment is its failure to address its leading ladies’ least favorite tropes. Nor did it send up most of the genre’s other explicitly anti-feminist cliches, all of which cry out for debunking. Contrary to Poehler’s hopes, women who have casual sex for fun in rom-coms are aggressively slut-shamed (What’s Your Number?), punished with a baby (Knocked Up), or realize the error of their non-monogamous ways and settle down (Friends With Benefits). With Poehler’s feminist politics infusing so much of her work, expectations were high that this movie would move beyond a silly, laugh-filled romp to offer a satire with real bite. But it’s a Wain/Showalter script, not a Poehler/Kemper script, so as well-constructed as this film is, it lacks the awareness or intention needed to deliver the explicit feminist take-down the genre deserves.
After all, romantic comedies rest on the notion that single women are hopelessly miserable and their lives lack meaning (Bridget Jones’ Diary). There’s an exceptionally low bar for Prince Charming: manipulators, stalkers, and abusers are often framed as romantic and irresistible (Twilight; The Ugly Truth; What Women Want, The Switch). Rape is funny, forgivable, sometimes even wanted (Observe and Report, Sixteen Candles). Supermodels and Maxim-cover starlets are inexplicably paired as romantic interests for awkward, boring schlubs (Knocked Up, Sideways). Leading men bang, date, and marry women young enough to be their daughters and, sometimes, granddaughters (Sabrina). Women are only single because something’s deeply wrong with their psyches, and romantic bliss awaits if only they’d stop pushing away earnest offers of love from an ever-available parade of gorgeous, witty, smart, kind, charming, communicative, monogamous single guys who are generous in bed and are always in love with them for no particular reason (No Strings Attached). LGBT characters exist only as quippy sidekicks or celibate consolation prizes (My Best Friend’s Wedding). And of course, the Taming of the Shrew prize for regressive rom-com backlash goes to The Bitchy Career Woman Who Spurns Love Until One Very Special Penis Thaws Her Frigid Heart (The Proposal, The Ugly Truth, Raising Helen).
It wouldn’t have been difficult to find space to lampoon these iconic, damaging stereotypes. Though endearingly embodied by Max Greenfield, Joel’s little brother could easily have lifted out of the script to make room to explode the stupid slut, the evil businesswoman, the romantic stalker, or other insidiously sexist tropes. That’s not the story Wain and Showalter wanted to tell, which is fine—They Came Together had the BAM audience in stitches. Wain and Showalter have been wanting to put Sleepless In Seattle through a Leslie Nielsen-style wringer for more than a decade, and it’s a win that they finally got to do so. Still, I’m left dreaming of a sequel written by Poehler/Kemper, infused with the insights of two of Hollywood’s smartest, most savvy comedic actresses. We could follow Kemper’s sexy-times adventures post-divorce from Hader, with Poehler as her flawed by relatable best friend: we could even call it They Came Apart. Until then, pass the popcorn and enjoy They Came Together.
Jennifer L. Pozner is a media critic, media literacy speaker/educator, and the founder and Executive Director of Women In Media & News. Her first book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, was called “required reading for every American girl and woman” by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry. Talk media and dodge creepers with her on Twitter at @jennpozner.