by Patrick Bromley
The second annual Chicago Critics Film Festival kicked off on May 9th, this year extended over the course of a week and moving out of the outlying suburbs and into the Chicago city limits. More than 20 films were screened over six days at the historic Music Box Theatre, from shorts to documentaries to heavy prison dramas to splatter comedies. It was a great week of movies programmed fully by film critics (the only festival in the world to do so), offering me a chance to see a bunch of stuff I've looked forward to, stuff I might never have seen and stuff I knew nothing about.
Opening the fest was David Wain's new film They Came Together, a brilliant parody of precisely the kind of middling romantic comedies Hollywood is so fond of cranking out year after year. As a fan of the genre (despite how terrible it has gotten) and even a number of the films Wain and Showalter are making fun of -- You've Got Mail and Jerry Maguire among them -- They Came Together levels the romantic comedy by being the romantic comediest romantic comedy that ever romantic comedied. It's smart but not self-satisfied in its deconstruction.
There is no point in describing the plot of They Came Together, because you've seen it dozens of times. That is not an accident. Wain and Showalter have mined three decades' worth of bland movies and constructed the Monomyth of romantic comedies. There's the "trying on clothes" montage. The guy who's best friends with his boss. The basketball game with the buddies. The manic, destructive makeout scene. Corporate boardrooms. Sassy/wise co-workers. Slacker younger brothers. Disapproving sisters. If you are as much a student of the genre as I am, you will identify every single trope the movie knowingly skewers, often times by just coming right out and saying exactly what they are ("Do you get it now, Mr. 'Combines Traits that Each of Us Represents and All You Need to do is Put it Together and You'll Be Just Fine' guy?"). It's not always that obvious, though, and part of the joy of the movie is letting the blunt force attack roll over you while spotting the hyperspecific details the movie gets right in all the corners. It has to be seen more than once just to pick up all the jokes. Most contemporary comedies don't even need to be seen once.
One of the best things about They Came Together is how much attention it pays to form, an increasingly disappearing concern when it comes to comedy. While all of Wain's movies have looked good, they're more about getting the job done than about formalism. Here, though, Wain and cinematographer Tom Houghton are careful to capture all the qualities of romantic comedies. That may make the movie look generic, as it embraces the same bright, flat two-shots of many a romcom, but there is art in the artlessness. Look at the the film opens on the ariel shots of the city (to which the narration calls attention) or the way Wain switches to shaky handheld during the pointless fight between Rudd and younger brother Max Greenfield (one of my favorite visual gags in the movie) to the push-ins during a dramatic moment that push in just a little too far. For as much as the film can crack us up with energy and non-sequiters, it's very smart about its own filmmaking. Amidst all the discussion about how truly funny it is, that fact shouldn't be overlooked.
Because if enough people see They Came Together -- and, really, everyone needs to see They Came Together -- it has the power to kill the romantic comedy as we know it. How will filmmakers like Robert Luketic or Anne Fletcher continue to make the kinds of movies they make and expect us to take them seriously when Wain has called out every single stupid trope? If They Came Together catches on like I wish it would (and because of its cult appeal, that's going to take some time), anyone making a romantic comedy in the future will have to be smarter and savvier about the choices he or she makes or else invite constant, scornful comparison.
I laughed more and harder in They Came Together than in any movie in over a decade. I'm sure it helped that the sold-out audience at the Music Box laughed from beginning to end -- it's a movie that plays great with a crowd on its wavelength -- but it's also that the movie is just that fast and funny. For those of us who were wearing out our Wet Hot American Summer quotes, it's another movie we'll be referencing with our friends for years to come.
They Came Together is out June 27th in limited release and on VOD.