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The Art of Romance in 'They Came Together' and 'Begin Again'

With so many mainstream movie romances mired in clichés, it's up to the indie sector to offer more nuanced, more original versions of the movie romance.

They Came Together

Director: David Wain
Cast: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Cobie Smulders, Max Greenfield, Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Ed Helms
Rated: R
Studio: Magnolia
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-06-27 (Limited release)
UK date: 2014-09-19 (General release)

Begin Again

Director: John Carney
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Stenifeld, Mos Def
Rated: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-06-27 (Limited release)
UK date: 2014-07-11 (General release)

The movie romance seems a lost art. So many current romantic comedies are self-conscious, over-lacquered, and unfunny; so many mainstream romantic dramas are derived from Nicholas Sparks' novels, or one of his imitators. Increasingly, it's up to the indie sector to offer more nuanced, more original versions of the form.

They Came Together, now in limited theatrical release and on VOD, brings the romantic comedy down to earth by jumping head first into its genre trappings. It is a full-on spoof from the creators of Wet Hot American Summer, and in the tradition of joke-a-minute parodies by Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker (Airplane! and so on).

Paul Rudd plays Joel, who is, as the movie points out, just the "right" amount of Jewish, and Amy Poehler plays Molly, prone to fits of unexplained klutziness. She owns a charming candy boutique on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; he works for a heartless candy conglomerate moving in on her territory.

They tell the story of their courtship over dinner with their friends Karen (Ellie Kemper) and Kyle (Bill Hader), because They Came Together smushes together movies like You've Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally… with tropes so familiar you may forget where they first came from. Who can remember, for example, the first time a filmmaker blithely described New York City as an additional character in their story, as Rudd and Poehler do here with perfectly insistent smarm?

Director David Wain and cowriter Michael Showalter sometimes flirt with placing these banalities in sarcastic quotation marks, in the style of fellow State alum Michael Ian Black (appearing here in a cameo, along with a dozen or so other sketch-comedy pros). But most of the time, they frame them with enough crucial absurdism to make the jokes work even if viewers don't have an abiding knowledge of their targets.

Still, recognizing shoddy sources doesn't hurt. Showalter and Wain are particularly smart about dismantling the dialogue-driven clichés that clang through so many movies like this. When Joel meets up with his wisecracking, semi-diverse buddies for a joshing basketball game, the screenplay and actors calibrate every line for maximum degrees of exposition and boilerplate thesis statements ("That's the point of view I represent," Kenan Thompson adds after saying how much he loves being married). Sniping this detailed requires more acute observation than the managed by the Aaron Friedberg/Jason Seltzer school of movie imitators (Date Movie, Disaster Movie).

Expert spoofery is potentially taxing on the actors, too. Rudd and Poehler are not only game, but also so merry that you can overlook they would have been better suited for this material six or seven years ago. Since then, they've both created variations on their comic personas; as good as they are at smiling through intentional triteness, their participation feels more like a lark than a triumph. The other actors, all very funny, serve similar purposes: they play best friends, baby brothers, sage advice-givers, points of contrast -- pretty much anything but fully realized characters.

The best spoof movies often celebrate the genres they mock, and They Came Together often seems affectionate regarding rom-com tropes. But the way it pokes and prods at formulas, mixing and matching elements nonsensically, also shows how genre ritual can become a form of confinement. It's a running gag throughout the movie's framing device that Kyle and Karen are stuck at the dinner table with Joel and Molly, held hostage by their supposedly charming story. Against the picturesque background, ugliness keeps emerging, especially in the last ten minutes or so. What glorious, autumn-colored hell it is to be stuck in a movie constantly referring to New York as another character in its story.

Begin Again (2014)

Begin Again, as it happens, is exactly that movie, albeit of the NPR-friendly variety. Currently in select theaters, it's not as glossy as a Hollywood romance, as writer-director John Carney, who broke through with the lovely unrequited love story Once, isn't particularly interested in consummation, however eventual. He finds romance in less traditional situations, like the making of music. He also finds romance in a close imitation of the plot of Once, only this time emphasizing production over songwriting.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a desperate, alcoholic A&R man at the floundering independent label he founded years ago. He stumbles into a Manhattan bar and happens to hear an open mic performance from Gretta (Keira Knightley), an English transplant about to give up on New York. The movie shows how both Dan and Gretta arrived at this particular bar on this particular night, then follows their unlikely partnership. He thinks her songs need richer production; she's skeptical, but goes along because she's still smarting after a break-up with her rising rock star boyfriend (Adam Levine). Gretta and Dan decide to record an impromptu album of her songs, live, at different locations around the city.

This is where New York rears its head as that vaunted additional character. It's also where Begin Again is at its best. As in Once, the song performances aren't quite production numbers, but Carney lingers on the music long enough to get the effect of a street-level musical. If anything, he might have pushed such experimentalism further. This movie doesn't offer anything so stunning as the late-night scene in Once when Markéta Irglová sings along with her Walkman as she walks home.

While Begin Again does offer scrappy, handheld scenes of busking on subway platforms and in Washington Square Park, the verisimilitude doesn't extend to its depiction of the music business, which is as ludicrous as any big-studio concoction. Gretta is so smugly disinterested in music label machinations that she comes off looking naïve and sometimes just stupid. So does Dan, for delighting in her ignorance of how royalties, manufacturing, and promotions work. As an underdog story, Begin Again goes far too easy on its characters.

As a romance, though, it resists simple gratification. Rather than awkwardly engineer clinches between Knightly and Ruffalo -- both are charming, but they share little romantic chemistry -- Carney focuses on how sharing iPod headphones (even if the filmmakers choose the safest, most tasteful songs possible for Gretta's guilty pleasures and Dan's heroes alike) can seem like the most intimate contact in the world. Small gestures like this gave Once its surprising power. In Begin Again, they're more of a pleasant side effect.

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