I'm just a guy, sitting in front of a screen, asking it to make me laugh at beautiful, awkward, charming people who are falling in love. The romantic comedy can be a fine way to burn two hours, but it's a silly genre at heart, with its contrived meet-cutes and drawn-out misunderstandings, and also a tough form to master, given that so much of the modern canon asks us to want love for characters that are barely even likable.
Think about two of the paragons of the genre: Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle is an awful dingbat of a human, not to mention a deluded stalker creep. Whereas Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail is even worse, turning the tables on Meg by crushing his dream-lady's professional dreams, then manipulating her into loving him. Appropriate trailers for those films can be found here and here. It's been 25 years since Harry met Sally (Meg again!), but does anyone really think they'd still be together today?
I'm not cynical about love; I'm cynical about our go-to venue for cinematic expressions of love. David Wain's new film, the gentle rom-com farce They Came Together (likely on your VOD right now), gets this. Or at least comes closer than usual to getting it.
I cop to a long-held bias for MTV's early-'90s sketch show The State, and the myriad talents and projects to spawn from it, including Wain's first film, 2001's tone-perfect '80s-summer-camp pastiche Wet Hot American Summer. From there he drifted toward more straightforward fare like 2008's Role Models—well, as straightforward as a movie featuring a kid drawing a picture entitled "Beyoncé Pouring Sugar on My Dick" can possibly be—but They Came Together brings him back to the realm of parody, with a cast of current comedy all-stars headlined by the winsome duo of Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. It's OK. And that's the disappointment.
Sure, the film works fine when it plays things relatively straight, merely nudging genre conventions—see Rudd and Poehler's own meet-cute, which occurs while they're both wearing Ben Franklin Halloween costumes. But when it broadens into Friedberg-Seltzer spoof obviousness, all the on-the-nose gags undermine the cleverness—see the pickup-basketball scene with Rudd's crew of buddies referring to each other only by their stereotypes, from Mr. Chronically Single Always Dating Some New Hot Chick Guy to Mr. Combines Traits That Everyone Represents and All You Have to Do Is Put It All Together and You'll Be Just Fine Guy.
Then again, They Came Together actually peaks when it veers into absolute absurdity, unmoored from any romantic-comedy tradition. A brief, absurdly repetitious dialogue between Rudd and a bartender—"Tell me about it!" "You can say that again!"—recalls Sideshow Bob and his hell of never-ending rakes; the heart-to-heart between Rudd and his bubbe is a memorable pep talk for reasons you won't anticipate.
This is all entertaining enough, but as parody, I was hoping for more. Maybe it's a target-audience issue: Romantic comedies are ripe for ribbing, but I suspect that the genre's most ardent fans aren't much interested in being made fun of, while those who may thrill to such skewerings could give two shits about riffs on Nora Ephron.
But then, in perhaps the ultimate rom-com cliché, while I sat around wishing for something else, I suddenly realized that what I wanted had been in front of me all along.
Or at least, since 2003. The Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty is at best forgotten and at worst actively unloved—even the venerable moviemaking duo's biggest devotees lump it with their least-favorites. But it's cleverer than it gets credit for, and it may just be the best commentary on rom-com convention yet, at least for such curmudgeonly souls as myself who want some sour with their sweets. It treats the genre like Scream treated horror movies.
All the typical story beats and character types are here; George Clooney (in full goofball glory) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (sharp and shrewd as ever) are just about as pretty and charming a couple as you could imagine. There's a meet cute, some love-at-first-sight action, a romantic rival, comedic misunderstanding, and banter galore.
What it lacks is pretense, and that's what's so refreshing. A common criticism of the Coens is that they don't "care" about their characters, but that only helps them here: Nora Ephron cared, and Meg Ryan paid the price. Intolerable Cruelty's lovebirds are the same selfish, manipulative souls that populate some of romantic comedy's most revered masterworks, but here, they're exposed as such, to use a word that takes on a particular significance in the film.
They're also smart people: It's a spoiler, I guess, but they end up together not because of stupidity, not because of coincidence, but because they (and the Coens) plot their way into that inevitability. The heart wants what it wants, but it's the brains here that make the ultimate coupling so satisfying. These aren't sweet-neurotic characters redeemed by their quirks; they scheme and manipulate just as Tom Hanks did in You've Got Mail, and to the exact same end, yet it never feels dirty. They don't deserve love, but they do deserve each other.
Of course we root for George and Catherine, but there are no illusions about who exactly we're rooting for. Unlike so many standard rom-coms, you don't feel fooled 30 minutes after the end credits roll, when the warm and fuzzy feelings fade, those plot machinations really sink in, and you realize the pairing is more victim-perpetrator than anything else. Therein lies Intolerable Cruelty's barbed charm: It's romantic and comedic in delightful ways, but it doesn't think much of romantic comedy. It's just cold enough to warm my heart.
Dan Eaton says "actually" way too often, has an unreasonable love of Arby's roast beef, and watches just the right amount of TV and movies without jeopardizing his marriage. He writes about other things for other people, but they don't let him swear.
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