Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Genre: Romantic Comedy
“They won’t make movies about us,” young Natalie’s mom warns her as the pair absorbs PRETTY WOMAN on their miniature Australian television set. It would be too sad, she muses, for a film to follow the conventionally unattractive. Natalie’s face, at first bushy-tailed and brimming with optimism, gradually devolves into a hardened scowl at Roberts’ and Gere’s chemistry-laden antics. Thus sets the stage for ISN’T IT ROMANTIC, an altogether charming picture that doesn’t so much invert cliche as it does gently prod at it, exhibiting a self-awareness that, if not entirely insightful, is refreshing for an aging genre in much need of resuscitation.
Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, a career architect who laments the trappings of the romantic comedy, all-too-critical of its tendencies to marginalize gay characters, deploy montages with the pizazz of a sparkling champagne, and shoehorn characters into romantic pairs without considering the notion that maybe those characters are more in need of self-love than external validation. After a nasty bump to the head, Natalie awakens to a world decorated with pastel colors and gorgeous men who swoon after her at every turn, her dingy apartment transformed into an ornate dwelling fit for a princess, her dog receiving a flowery makeover, etc. She’s now living in a romantic comedy!
Her name is definitely spelled wrong on that cup
The film’s conceit resoundingly echoes 2018’s I FEEL PRETTY, though ISN’T IT ROMANTIC is the superior picture, more taut and not prone to derive laughs from womens’ appearances (and a pleasing 88 minutes to PRETTY’s staggering 110!). It’s a consistently amusing effort, with Wilson an agreeable lead, bumbling her way through her new environment and questioning (in pedantic voiceover) how to escape this world she loathes so very much. The film is questionable in its attempt to dismantle cliches (it often conflates the romcom with the musical, and many of the stereotypes it tackles are oddly not necessarily romcom material), but it’s a moot point in what is essentially a love letter to the genre.
Much credit is due to the supporting cast—Liam Hemsworth plays the ostensible love interest, poking fun at his inherent charisma by appearing simultaneously dopey and demonstrating a bizarre fascination with the word “beguiling,” Adam Devine is Natalie’s office friend who may or may not have a huge crush on her (much has been said of Devine—negative in nature—but he’s perfect in the role, equal parts dorky and enticing), and Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra redeems herself after appearing in the abominable BAYWATCH, showcasing a surprising humorous instinct and comedy rhythm that matches her on-screen comrades.
The closest the film comes to being acerbic is its handling of the workplace conflict between successful women that seems to plague the romcom—Natalie’s friendly assistant in her previous existence has been transformed into a slicked-back monster in the romcom arena, with Natalie constantly questioning why career women must bear animosity toward each other when both have the common goal of attempting to survive in a man’s world. Also of interest is the film’s awareness of its MPAA certification, with Natalie’s f-bombs being drowned out by subway trains and alarm clocks, and scenes of sexuality being cut off by the film proper, with Natalie desperate to try and break the cycle and actually engage in intercourse with Hemsworth, despite the “film” “cutting” before she can initiate. It’s a nice bit of self-reflexivity that may seem somewhat jarring to audiences not used to being involved in the editing process.
“Oh, look another dance sequence!”
“Oh god, not another dance sequence.”
The film runs into problems with Natalie’s apparently straight neighbor, Donny, who, in the romcom universe, has been altered into a stereotypical gay best friend, appearing in Natalie’s life at exceedingly random intervals, obsessed with finding out the size of Hemsworth’s member. The film acknowledges that the character exists only to provide banter and exposition in standard romcoms while at the same time relegating Donny to a cog in the wheel of Natalie’s romantic endeavors. It’s an example of the film having its cake and eating it too, with the production unsure whether to gift Donny autonomy or render him a non-entity. There are jabs at the GBF’s role in traditional romance films, but ISN’T IT ROMANTIC engages in those same tropes—there’s somewhat of a redemption in the film’s closing moments, and Brandon Scott Jones is a genuine scene-stealer as Donny, but it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
But ISN’T IT ROMANTIC is assuredly a well-meaning production, and a well-directed one—there’s a musical sequence in a karaoke bar that rests as one of the most kinetic displays of craft we’ve seen in a mainstream American comedy in quite some time, and director Strauss-Schulson employs well-timed zooms and crane shots that help give the picture a sense of immediacy and scope. Credit goes to the filmmakers for such an overwhelmingly positive and important thesis (to be loved, you must first love yourself), and the film ends with a bang, a musical number set to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” that encapsulates everything the film’s about. It’s sure to be cherished by romcom fans and may even become part of romcom canon, down the road. It’s just that sweet.