Like "Wet Hot American Summer," his cult classic spoof of '70s and '80s summer camp cinema, writer/director David Wain's new satire, "They Came Together," nails an extremely tricky tone, being at once sunny and sarcastic, mocking but never mean.
As rival New York candy store entrepreneurs who hate each other at first and then bond over their shared love of "fiction books," "Wet Hot" vets Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd somehow manage to be both snarky and beguiling, their characters' screwy behavior culminating in, yes, a well-timed climax.
So is "They Came Together" fated to be another "Wet Hot"-style sleeper, its comedic eccentricities becoming more beloved over time and repeated viewings?
"Could be," said Wain by phone last week. "But quite honestly I'm ready for this one to work for people right away."
Newly available for rent on demand (and also screening at Mall of America), "They Came Together" — which is hilarious, by the way — could easily be read as a sendup of cute rom-com confections by the celebrated likes of Nora Ephron ("You've Got Mail") and Nancy Meyers ("What Women Want"). But Wain said his film's true inspirations sit a good deal further down the cinematic food chain.
"There are all those mid-level '90s rom-coms with titles you can never remember — 'The Time I Met You' or 'The Essence of You' or whatever. I love watching those, too. They're the ones the basic cable networks have to play 10 times a year in order to get 'The Shawshank Redemption.' "
What's funny about those would-be comedies in 2014 is how few of their ilk find theater screens amid the near-total dominance of what Wain called the "four-quadrant movie — the blockbuster that appeals to everyone globally." Even "They Came Together" is being limited to release in a small number of cinemas, despite its populist sensibilities and well-liked leads.
Rudd has become bankable in the dozen-odd years since the box-office bombing of "Wet Hot American Summer," largely on account of his role as goofball reporter Brian Fantana in the "Anchorman" movies. Next summer, in a somewhat ominous sign of the times, he'll be seen as Ant-Man in Marvel's pre-fab blockbuster of the same name, though he'll likely remain Wain's indie muse, having appeared in all of the director's films, and probably the next one as well.
"He's so naturally winning and charismatic," Wain said of his star. "Also, he really understands the subtleties of very unusual kinds of humor, while at the same time imbuing his performances with 100 percent credibility. Very few actors can do that."
Rudd and Poehler are expected to appear with most or all of their "Wet Hot" co-stars in a prequel, whose central comic conceit is that the actors, despite being more than a decade older, will play slightly younger versions of their cherished characters.
Further details of the "Wet Hot" prequel remain "hush-hush," said Wain, "but we're definitely doing it." Asked whether the follow-up will take the form of a theatrical feature, a single-season Netflix series or a stage show in the Catskills, Wain replied, "I have no further comment."
Fair enough. But would Wain at least inform "Wet Hot" fans of whether he himself performed at the summer camp talent show when he was a kid?
"I was the emcee," he boasted. "I was famous for doing the surprise lip sync rendition of 'My Sharona.' I've never told anyone that before."
Send questions or comments to Rob Nelson at VODcolumn@gmail.com.