Can Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd’s ‘They Came Together’ Save the Spoof Comedy?

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There are few things more pretentious and self-serving than quoting yourself, but hopefully I’ll offset that quality by quoting myself being wrong about something. “The spoof movie is dead,” your film editor wrote on these pages, back in November, “and The Starving Games is just a phantom moan from a long-closed coffin.” You can understand my hopelessness; after all, I’d just sat through the latest “spoof” “comedy” from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the talentless hacks who all but single-handedly destroyed the parody movie as a viable comedy subgenre. But the good news is the spoof movie may have risen from the dead, Dracula (or, more appropriately, Dracula: Dead and Loving It) style, thanks to director David Wain and his co-writer Michael Showalter, whose rom-com send-up They Came Together is as funny a film as I’ve seen in a good, long while.

Wain and Showalter, alums of The State, were also responsible for one of the few genuinely funny spoof films of the 21st century, Wet Hot American Summer. Their target this time is much less obscure than ‘80s summer camp comedies: they’re taking down the twinkly, yuppie-fied, New York-set romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail and its ilk. Their supporting cast is enviable: Cobie Smulders, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Max Greenfield, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey, Ed Helms (in the Bill Pullman role), Kenan Thompson, Jack McBrayer, Wet Hot’s Christopher Meloni, and Wet Hot/State vets Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino.

But Wain’s masterstroke is casting Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler (also of Wet Hot American Summer) in the leads. One of the keys to a successful spoof movie is a certain level of credibility: Young Frankenstein’s moody, black-and-white cinematography and authentic sets and props made it look like an old Universal monster movie, which makes the silliness that much more subversive, while Zucker-Abrams-Zucker’s casting of straight-faced dramatic actors like Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack rendered the nonsense they were spouting even more incongruous and unexpected (and, thus, funny).

With Rudd and Poehler, the twist is, they actually could star in a twinkly, generic, Ephron-esque romantic comedy — they’re got great chemistry, they’re attractive and likable, and they’re downright adorable together, so the film works both on the surface and past it. And Wain gets that surface just right, from frame one: jazzy music, crisp title font, slick style, and loving establishing shots of New York City (which, the characters never tire of reminding us, is “like another character in our story”).

Tackling this material is trickier than it sounds; as Roger Ebert once noted, “satire works best when its target is self-important,” and there are few things more difficult than satirizing what is already humorous. But, in fairness to them, Wain and Showalter don’t seem to think romantic comedies are all that funny. And if you look at enough of them, you start to see the same tired formulas and tropes, over and over again: the aforementioned Big Apple idolatry, the telling-their-story-to-another-couple framework (this time, to a couple both angrily bitter and a tad slow), the clumsy “connection” dialogue (“You like fiction books? I’ve never met anyone else who likes fiction!”), the endless montages (one of them sending up the inevitable tie-in music video). Rudd’s “Joel” gets both an aimless little brother character (who constantly calls him “big brother”) and a group of basketball buddies/romantic advisers, each embodying an obvious stock type (“Being married is great!” announces one. “That’s the point of view I represent!”). Poehler’s “Molly” gets a sassy black co-worker (who is the sounding board for the inevitable “trying on clothes” montage) and, out of nowhere midway through the film, a Jerry Maguire-style protective sister and adorable son.

Some of these are easy targets, but the filmmakers aren’t just shooting fish here; they leave plenty of room for their own bizarre sidebars and digressions. Some of them work (like the late scene between Joel and his “bubby,” or the wildly unexpected flaw of Molly’s parents); some don’t (an ill-advised bit of toilet humor with Meloni). But there’s never a moment of doubt that we’re in the hands of a singular, distinctive comic sensibility, and perhaps that’s what’s most refreshing about They Came Together — that after years of Seltzer/Friedberg and Wayans movies that reduce the genius of ZAZ and Brooks to fart jokes and commentary-free pop culture references, it’s still possible to make a spoof movie that is biting, merciless, clever, and (most importantly) uproariously funny.

They Came Together is out tomorrow in limited release.