Are movies getting too meta for their own good?
They Came Together, a movie released last Friday directed by David Wain, who also wrote and directed the cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, looked too good to be true. A silly rom-com spoof starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, full of references to classic chick flicks from When Harry Met Sally to Pretty Woman? Is this a dream? But despite some definitely hilarious moments, They Came Together turned out to be disappointing and underwhelming: another movie in a wave of new films that suggests that, yes, movies can definitely get too meta.
The plot of They Came Together most closely resembles You’ve Got Mail: an owner of a small candy store, Molly (Amy Poehler), meets a high-up executive at a candy corporation, Joel (Paul Rudd). They hate each other at first. They fall in love after finding a point of connection, which in this case is a shared love for the entire fiction genre. They break up two-thirds of the way through the film, but there’s a big speech at the end followed by an outdoor wedding (since that’s how the typical rom-com ends, give or take the outdoor part, this shouldn’t feel like a big spoiler).
The movie establishes itself almost right away as meta: from the first scene it’s clear that the main characters are aware of, and continually comment on, the fact that they’re in a film. In telling two friends (played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) how they met, Molly and Joel introduce themselves as characters in a “kind of corny, romantic-comedy kind of story.” Joel is a “typical romantic comedy leading man” who’s “handsome but in a non-threatening way” and “vaguely but not overtly Jewish” while Molly is a “cute klutzy girl” you can’t help but fall in love with. And, as Paul Rudd’s character explains, there’s one last main character that’s just as important as Joel and Molly: New York City. (Cue aerial shots of Manhattan timed with jazzy music to begin the story).
The use of meta-reference in theater and film has a long history, going all the way back to the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, in which Groucho looks at the camera and breaks the fourth wall, telling viewers, “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.” (In a funny coincidence, Groucho glasses play an important role in Molly and Joel’s love story.) Since the Marx Brothers days, everything from Fight Club to The Simpsons Movie to Monty Python and the Holy Grail have included meta jokes as a form of comedy. During Robin Hood: Men in Tights, for instance, an actor checks the movie’s script to figure out whether he lost an archery contest. (He gets another shot.)
But while well-placed moments like those can be hilarious and unexpected — as they definitely are in Wet Hot American Summer — too much reliance on meta-reference comes at a cost. They Came Together has some comedic gold moments (I’m always happy to see Amy Poehler in a Benjamin Franklin costume), but the meta set-up made it very hard to escape into the world of the film’s characters.
It’s tough to get engrossed in the humor of the movie or care about how Molly and Joel end up if you’re busy pointing out plot similarities to Nora Ephron movies. Unlike The Mindy Project, which is both a commentary on rom-coms and an enjoyable show on its own, They Came Together is pretty much all parody, all the time.
They Came Together just doesn’t quite stand on its own outside the world of self-referential humor. Which isn’t to say extended meta jokes can’t work; take 22 Jump Street, which was critically adored and widely seen. The movie liberally sprinkled meta references to the first Jump Street movie and the 1980s TV show that spawned its franchise, but there was a real movie underneath the jokes. A person could have enjoyed it without knowing anything about the greater context. With They Came Together, anyone who doesn’t “get it” just won’t get it. Even if you’re a fan of meta stuff, They Came Together could still fall flat. Though the movie has some wonderfully fresh dialogue, especially between Joel and his brother (played by New Girl’s Max Greenfield), a lot of the parodied rom-com clichés are already universally known and mocked. Paul Rudd is not the first actor to get melodramatically splashed by a puddle, and Amy Poehler is certainly not be the first to try on a crazier-than-normal string of outfits before a date for laughs.
Maybe They Came Together is destined to end up like last year’s This Is The End — you either love it or hate it, depending on how much you like watching those actors make inside jokes. But from here, that sounds like a rather depressing future for what Time magazine is heralding as the beginning of a “new era of spoofs.” Unless you’re Community’s Abed Nadir, an upcoming string of comedies that consist entirely of the main characters mocking their own story sounds pretty exhausting.
In an interview on The Colbert Report, Paul Rudd sarcastically characterized the movie as not only meta but also “paper thin.” He jovially told Colbert, “There’s no substance here at all. You can kind of half-pay attention to your children…you can kind of half-pay attention to making dinner. And it’s quick, it flies by.”
Not exactly the best way to promote a movie. But maybe he was just being meta.