Rebel Wilson shines in a funny. insightful look at the rhythms of the rom-com.
The only thing more cliché than romantic comedy clichés are complaints about rom-com clichés. Besides the fact that grumbling about klutzy heroines, oversized apartments, and last-minute confessions of love is just a hackneyed, unoriginal joke at this point, it can also feel like a mean-spirited takedown of a genre that’s already subjected to an unfair amount of cultural flack. Isn’t It Romantic does have a scene where a character rattles off a laundry list of rom-com clichés, but here it’s in the service of something much bigger than just an easy
Moving into a leading lady role after a successful career as comedic sidekicks, Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, a timid Australian architect who lives in a realistically cramped, dirty version of New York City and whose work is limited to parking lot designs. A childhood love of romantic comedies was squashed by Natalie’s cynical mom (Jennifer Saunders), who warned her daughter that fairy tale romances only exist for those with the effortless grace and beauty of Julia Roberts. Internalizing that message at a young age has caused Natalie to set the bar rather low for herself. She’s a doormat in her professional life and lacks confidence in her painfully unglamorous personal one too, no matter how much her workplace best friends Whitney (Betty Gilpin) and maybe-wants-to-be-more-than-friends Josh (Adam DeVine) try to empower her to take control of her own happiness.
Natalie’s literal wakeup call comes when she smacks her head and awakens to find her world transformed into an over-the-top romantic comedy. Her apartment is Pinterest-perfect, her firm’s jerky American client Blake (Liam Hemsworth) is now a charming Australian hunk eager to sweep Natalie off her feet, and Josh is still largely himself except for the fact that he immediately meet-cutes with a glamorous “yoga ambassador” named Isabella (Priyanka Chopra).
Theorizing that acting out the arc of a rom-com protagonist is the only way to escape this romantic hell (given that this rom-com world is a PG-13 one, Natalie can’t swear or have any actual sex), Natalie sets about using her knowledge of romantic comedy tropes to her advantage. That includes utilizing the help of her new, perpetually doting “gay best friend” Donny (Brandon Scott Jones in a breakout performance)—a scene-stealing comedic creation the film uses both for laughs and, later, an unexpected bit of emotional heft too.
Though Isn’t It Romantic is crammed full of homages to specific romantic comedies, its fantasy world is more like the collective cultural idea of a rom-com thrown into a blender and turned up to 11. There’s something of The Good Place’s bonkers heavenly neighborhood in the movie’s curse-word free, heightened unreality—a world where Blake thinks that writing his phone number on individual flower petals and sprinkling them into Natalie’s hat is an effective way to set up a line of communication. (Naturally, of course, it is.) Isn’t It Romantic is as much a fish-out-of-water comedy as it is a rom-com parody. That allows the film to feel like more than just a sketch comedy premise stretched into a feature length film, which was the problem with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler’s funny but uneven 2014 rom-com parody They Came Together.
Given that director Todd Strauss-Schulson’s previous film was about a group of teenagers who wind up inside a 1980s slasher film, he’s certainly carved out a very specific niche for himself as Hollywood’s go-to director for meta genre riffs. As he did in The Final Girls, Strauss-Schulson balances parody with pathos while anchoring the film in a unique visual language. He shoots the real-world portions with a washed out, handheld look to better contrast with the colorful, heightened reality and showy camera angles of the rom-com world.
Working from a sharp, funny script by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman, Strauss-Schulson has a strong sense of when to push his actors into full-on comedic goofiness and when to reign them back towards emotional realism. On the goofier end, Hemsworth seems to be having an absolute blast getting to play something other than a brooding leading man for once. Isn’t It Romanticproves his older brother Chris wasn’t the only Hemsworth whose comedic talents Hollywood has too long been wasting.
As funny as it is about sending up romantic comedy conventions, Isn’t It Romantic also embraces what makes them so compelling—from star-crossed lovers to poorly motivated but engagingly staged musical numbers. Having previously played opposite each other in the Pitch Perfect franchise (the weirdo romance of Fat Amy and Bumper is a highlight of the second film), Wilson and DeVine have an easy chemistry together and a meta sense of connectivity that has fueled many classic rom-com pairings. DeVine tones down his broader comedic impulses to play Josh as an endearingly sweet, low-key guy in both the real world and the fantasy one. Josh is very much a supporting player in Natalie’s story, and DeVine echoes that in a restrained performance that’s mostly about letting Wilson shine.
Indeed, the film
Isn’t It Romantic is the sort of funny, fleet, feel-good film it’s a joy to see Hollywood start embracing again. There are little quibbles to be had here and there: Gilpin arguably plays even more of a rom-com stereotype as Natalie’s real-world bestie than she does as her fantasy world rival; Chopra is a little comedically underserved
Valentine’s Day weekend is often a time for Hollywood to churn out forgettable romantic fodder that will go stale quicker than a box of drug store chocolates. Isn’t It Romantic is more like a perfectly crafted little gem that winningly earns its place in the rom-com pantheon.