How old is “romantic comedy” as a cinematic genre? That may seem like an absurd question, since movies have been combining funny with cutesy nearly as long as there have been movies, and tales of “they hate each other, then they date each other” reach back to classics like It Happened One Night in the 1930s. As much as contemporary generations like to imagine they invented everything, this wouldn’t seem to be one of those things.
Yet the distinctive confection that we have come to call the “rom-com” feels like something different, specifically modeled after When Harry Met Sally…—something with a recipe mixing urbane sophistication, a little wacky broad humor, likeably exasperating protagonists and a few extremely familiar tropes on the way to the inevitable happily-ever-after. The stuff that’s so appealing to certain viewers is exactly the same stuff that drives others crazy: the numbing, plug & play sameness. And oh, how satisfying it is to find any thing that recognizes the sameness and does something about it.
The keywords “abortion romantic comedy” will have you halfway toward figuring out whether there’s even a remote shot that Obvious Child could be up your alley; the rest depends on just how in tune you are with Jenny Slate’s caustic comedic sensibility. In writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s film, Slate plays a struggling would-be stand-up comedian named Donna Stern, whose life goes from the suckiness of getting dumped and losing her day job to the existential terror of an unplanned pregnancy after a drunken one-night stand with a clean-cut business student (Jake Lacy).
On one level, it’s just an indie-pic variation on all those 1980s sit-coms where stand-up comedians played out stories based on their stage persona. Slate, however, proves to be a surprisingly terrific actor, nailing some difficult, emotionally unsettling scenes beyond all the tart oneliners from Donna’s stand-up act and her life beyond the stage.
And oh, those are some choice one-liners, from Donna referring to standing outside her ex’s apartment as “engaging in a little light stalking,” to what may become a go-to line for responding to any awkwardly outrageous utterance (“… And then she said that”). It’s funny and messy and at times genuinely sweet—which makes it a shame that it’s sometimes an uncomfortable collision between slight rom-com charms and self congratulation about how matter-offactly it treats the topic of abortion.
Sure, it’s an intriguing change-ofpace from mainstream unplanned pregnancy tales scared to death of confronting this option. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate the treacherous terrain between female-empowerment raunch and overly earnest position paper.
David Wain, on the other hand, goes directly for the jugular of the rom-com with They Came Together, the most hilariously spot-on genre parody since Walk Hard nailed shut the coffin of the by-the-numbers biopic. It’s the story of Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler), with a framing sequence that has them at a dinner with friends relating the circumstances behind how they came together. And, not surprisingly, it’s a tale of meeting cute (showing up at the same costume party both dressed as Ben Franklin), maybe having some initial attraction, sparring and falling in love.
Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter have a sketch-comedy background, and Wain’s movies (Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten) have sometimes struggled to find a solid center between the gags. Here, he wisely hones in on a couple of ur-texts for his parody. Just as Walk Hard concentrated on Ray and Walk the Line, They Came Together sticks close to When Harry Met Sally… and You’ve Got Mail—Joel works for a Big Candy Corporation that threatens Molly’s independent candy shop.
Wain brilliantly nails every target he aims for. The buddies who serve
as Joel’s confidants (including Wain regular Ken Marino and SNL’s Kenan
Thompson) offer demographically diverse advice with intros like, “I’m
married, and that’s the point of view I represent.” The montage of Molly
trying on clothes finds her sampling a suit of armor, and the “good
times” montage and theme-song video are just as wonderfully demented.
With Rudd and Poehler delivering enthusiastic performances behind their
ironically earnest smiles, They Came Together does what the best parody does: Its own crazed imagination points out how little imagination there can be in its target.
Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy
THEY CAME TOGETHER
Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler