‘They Came Together’ Inspires Nostalgia for the Rom-Com Golden Age
No one can argue that the rom-com is dead, but our fondness for the golden age of the genre still remains intact, a romantic comedy experience all its own, albeit one with a less rosy ending: we fell in love with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but they had to grow up and evolve and move on, leaving us searching to fill a void in an ever-changing cinematic landscape. Our attempts to replace them were hilariously misguided, and in the end we learned that we were better off alone.
Enter David Wain and Michael Showalter, the director and writer who brought us the cult classic comedy ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ and the more recent -- and underrated -- ‘Wanderlust.’ Reteaming with stars Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, Wain and Showalter have delivered a charming and funny love letter to the golden age of rom-coms, when unlikely pairings formed and love bloomed against the backdrop of big cities like New York -- which could always reliably be considered a major character in the story, a joke that plays out beautifully in the first 10 minutes of ‘They Came Together.’
Poehler plays Molly, a small candy store owner in danger of losing her business to a looming conglomerate when her friends set her up with Rudd’s Joel, executive of said conglomerate. The parallels to ‘You’ve Got Mail’ are intentionally obvious, but ‘They Came Together’ doesn’t seek to parody or crassly spoof classic rom-coms; instead, the film is a devout but clever send-up, embracing familiar tropes. Genre conventions are openly referenced and characters make their intentions and feelings verbally explicit, evading predictability in favor of mining the situational comedy and inevitable conflicts. When Joel’s cheating ex (played by Cobie Smulders) returns to him, newly single and ready for rebound sex, she makes her intentions clear: she cannot be trusted, she will hurt him again, and this is just about sex. In a classic rom-com, this would be unspoken motivation to drive necessary drama, but here the humor revolves around the idea that these stock rom-com characters are expressing how they really feel and taking a moment to stop and pick that apart, hilariously riffing off of one another.
In typical Wain and Showalter fashion, the film is wildly silly, but make no mistake about it: while ‘They Came Together’ is playing with classic rom-com conventions, the film itself is a classic rom-com. The pair have somehow made a film that not only affectionately toys with tropes from the golden age of rom-coms as if gently nudging its forebears in the ribs with a friendly chuckle, but is, in itself, a golden age rom-com. No small feat.
We live in an age where the romantic comedy genre has officially died out, ruined in the modern era with cynicism and plots that feature exceedingly inane and implausible conflict. The classics were never meant to be wholly relatable, but instead inspire optimism by allowing us to live vicariously and empathize on a more emotional level. Who doesn’t love a good and witty “against all odds” love story? There’s a hopefulness to the golden age rom-coms like ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and ‘Sleepless in Seattle,’ films that feature the wonderfully improbable love story between two people who shouldn’t be right for each other based on their ethics or their geography or circumstance.
Modern rom-coms eschewed that very basic formula in favor of a frenzied and manic approach, one that played into our cynicism rather than making an appeal to our hopeless romanticism. The classics gave us spunky and charming female protagonists (usually Meg Ryan) whose little neuroses didn’t make them shrewd, but relatable. They gave us leading men like Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal, real every guy characters who were funny and affable and neurotic in ways to which men could relate. Their stories were a little fantastic and evoked the feeling of watching a single woman’s fairytale, and just like that we wanted to live in their stories and experience that impossible love. We knew it wasn’t really real, but it made us feel good and gave us hope.
The modern rom-coms are (or were) always about self-involved female protagonists who trade in neuroses for narcissism, and whose ultimate struggle is being able to get over themselves enough to see Mr. Right, who’s been hanging out under their nose all along, if only they’d quit examining it in the damn mirror. People hurt each other, usually via some form of good-intentioned deception or a lie by omission, and those hurts are revealed in the climax before a big, weepy moment where someone begs for forgiveness and proclaims their love in front of a group of people. The pair reconcile and a happy ending is forged. They’ve practically broken up before they were even together. And while classic rom-coms are not very realistic, modern rom-coms of the late 90s and early 00s were glossy and striving for faux realism, a sort of Cosmopolitan magazine “50 Ways” checklist of relationships.
Meg Ryan became Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl and Sarah Jessica Parker, still blonde but with longer hair. These women who can’t be bothered with love or who are frustrated that it continues to elude them find it in unexpected places with dark and handsome GQ cover-ready men like Bradley Cooper and Matthew McConaughey and Patrick Dempsey -- a modern day Barbie and Ken pairing, exchanging sitcom one-liners sauced up with PG-13 language.
The newer rom-coms were meant to be more realistic, but they were increasingly harder to relate to, and if we can’t empathize with these characters, how are we supposed to relate at all? What the modern rom-coms failed to comprehend was that cynicism does not equal realism. No one wants to watch a movie about people falling in love when they don’t particularly like them or understand their motivations.
What ‘They Came Together’ understands is that we are nostalgic for classic rom-coms in an age of cinema that is progressively trading in polar opposites: hyper-realism and hyper-fantasy. Nowadays, those films that do resemble rom-coms are trending toward more realistic portrayals and smart, female-focused comedies (‘Obvious Child’ being one recent and excellent example). And, while relatability and realism is good, we can’t help but miss a time when we watched Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks fall in love via e-mail, both oblivious to their real world identities, which were at odds with one another. That improbable love instilled hope, and ‘They Came Together’ embraces these vintage notions and tropes and gives us a hilarious and self-aware trip down memory lane, showing us that this love is still possible as long as we still want it. This loving and gentle satire may not be enough to revive the corpse of the classic rom-com, but it’s enough to remind us why we loved them in the first place, and although it’s poking fun, the film itself is more charming emulation than clever put-on.
'They Came Together' is in limited theatrical release and available via VOD nationwide on June 27