2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin | directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson | 1 hr 29 mins |
Why do some movie genres live on year after year while some seem to fall out of fashion for a period of time? Rom-coms dominated the 80s, 90s and early 00s, and while rigidly adhering to their own tightly wound formula, it was horror movies that very often received a reputation for following a formula. While rom-coms are accepted just the way they are, horror goes through periods of self-examination and evolve. Romantic comedies never had their Scream, Shaun of the Dead or The Cabin in the Woods; movies that challenged the tropes and cliches of the usual work and built them into something that transcended the genre. Without that pressure to evolve, the traditional romantic comedy that we knew faded out of fashion with a last gasp of Kate Hudson movies and was replaced with vulgar, improvized guy-centric Judd Apatow fair.
Swooping in to beat this dead horse is Isn’t it Romantic, a high-concept Rebel Wilson vehicle parodying romantic comedies. It’s the kind of parody that gently taps it’s target and spends all night apologizing for it, instead of giving it the thorough satirization that it needs, and would frankly be good for it. Wilson’s Natalie is an architect who gets run over by everyone in her office and is too shy to present her big parking garage idea to the brass in the boardroom until one day she gets a bonk on the head and sitcom-style gets dropped into a living PG-13 romantic comedy. Now Natalie has to navigate a new rom-com movie world where her assistant (Betty Gilpin) has turned into her office rival, her best friend (Adam Palley) meets-cute a famous model (Priyanka Chopra) and the dashing new executive (Liam Hemsworth) accidently runs into her with his limo and is immediately smitten.
Romantic comes armed with a laundry list of cliches ready to check off and production design and cinematographer that recreates the colorful, trendy New York wish-fulfillment fantasy settings of rom-coms with spot-on accuracy. But simply recreating the tropes doesn’t inherently make it funny and, worse, the movie has no idea what it wants to say about the genre. What about rom-coms it wants to satirize. That they create unrealistic expectations about romance? That they are all the same? That they rely on sexist stereotypes and gay panic stock characters?
It’s first big mistake is tossing the old adage “show don’t tell” out the window and having Natalie flat-out vocalize all of the cliches the movie is going to cover in a montage about why she hates romantic comedies and how harmful their fantasies are. Once in Rom-Com World Romantic has the most superficial possible commentary that finds it – for some reason – zeroing in hard on rom-coms as shallow upper-class wish-fulfillment fantasies about big New York apartments, women with lots of shoes, cupcake bakeries and Michelle Branch songs. It’s kind of a toothless way of side-stepping the parody so you don’t have to say anything about relationships. Because, as the third act of this movie reveals itself, it believes everything rom-coms say about relationships offering a look at Natalie’s real life that is no different than a movie. Talk about taking back the joke.
Even as Isn’t it Romantic ends with yet another musical number to break the rules of it’s world and desperately try to stretch the running time to feature length, I still didn’t know if it’s writers either liked rom-coms or were utterly dismissive of them. A good horror movie deconstruction usually comes from horror directors themselves (Wes Craven) or fans that infused the film with a love for the very genre they were skewing (Edgar Wright). Wilson is pretty terrible here; her performance is very sitcom-like and the movie plays out like those Youtube videos where someone has removed the audience laugh track from The Big Bang Theory and the cast sits around in silence. I would love for the movie to be more savage, but I would have also taken for Isn’t it Romantic to have a single laugh in it.
In fairness, the character is also poorly written. In the movie’s Tell-Don’t-Show opening act we hear how knowledgeable she is about these movies – and once inside the movie world she is constantly set back by each turn of the familiar plot. If the point is that all rom-coms are the same, a much better version of this movie would have Natalie use her movie knowledge to anticipate what was going to happen next and use the rules of this universe to her advantage in the same way Bill Murray masters the time loop rules in Groundhog Day and the Scream characters use horror rules against the killers. The film’s muddled “love yourself (but also love someone else)” message isn’t nearly as much fun as a movie in which Natalie having some active agency in her predicament would have been. Isn’t it Romantic may be a slight movie, but as a missed opportunity it is epic.