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The practice of spoofing romantic comedy cliches is by no means novel, the territory so ripe for ridicule that it’s even spawned entire films devoted to knowing jabs. But because of how easy it is to poke fun at the genre, such ribbing can often feel lazy, highlighting tropes even a casual consumer would know all too well, and given how it remains a mostly dying genre, also a bit mean-spirited. In 2014’s They Came Together, such observations worked best as stand-alone skits but felt strained when forced to stretch to a 90-minute runtime.
In 2019, the romantic comedy is in somewhat better shape after last year saw Crazy Rich Asians become a global smash and Netflix engineer a much-viewed “Summer of Love” with a multi-film campaign that provided evidence of impassioned interest in the genre, albeit living room-based. It’s not quite a sure thing again but its success on the small screen, with romcoms of old on heavy streaming rotation, means that audiences are as well versed as ever on the nuts and bolts that lead to that heavily soundtracked wedding-based finale. Glossy Valentine’s gamble Isn’t It Romantic aims to do two things: provide a rare, wide-releasing romantic comedy from a big studio while also listing and laughing at the genre’s overly familiar plot points.
As a girl, Natalie (Rebel Wilson) grew up enraptured with the Pretty Woman narrative, investing in an ideal that would see her receive a happy ever after. But as her mother informs her at a young age, fiction and reality are wildly different, especially for women who don’t look like Julia Roberts. As a woman living in New York, she’s made aware of this on a daily basis, living in a dingy apartment and regularly denigrated in the workplace. But after a mugging leaves her hospitalised, Natalie wakes up in an alternate universe, one that looks like every romantic comedy she has ever grown to criticise. The streets are clean, her apartment is outsized, she has an offensively stereotyped gay best friend and a love interest in the shape of hunky mogul Blake (Liam Hemsworth), all soundtracked to Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles.
There’s similar box-ticking with the script, pushing Wilson into hackneyed scenarios from a karaoke set piece to the world’s most overblown first date. It’s in the mechanics of the plot that the film faces a stumble, the thin jumble of a narrative not always meeting the high standard set by the film’s sleek new world and while some cliches are acutely observed, others feel less well-picked, an inconsistent script that feels a few drafts away from something far sharper. Wilson comments on how offensive her flamboyant gay best friend is but so much of the humour that follows with his character feels less tied to a recognition of a stereotype and more just laughing at a flamboyant gay man. There’s also a confused final stretch that takes one step forward and then two steps back. There’s a rare, worthy message of self-love being more important than romantic love (a hark back to the hugely underrated How to be Single, Wilson’s last film with writers Dana Fox and Katie Silberman) and valuing a woman in the workplace over a woman in the kitchen but the film also can’t help including a more conventional, crowd-pleasing clinch and a rather misjudged final dance number.
Wilson is a mostly engaging lead and while she’s not a natural with some of the later stage sentiment, her offhand line delivery elevates a number of throwaway jabs and she’s well-suited to physical comedy. The cast around her are all mostly forgettable, with Hemsworth not quite delivering the charm one would expect from such a character, Adam Devine not quite convincing as the best friend with an unrequited crush and Priyanka Chopra not quite interesting enough as the spiky love rival.
There’s fun to be had here, especially for fans of the genre, although in an interesting, last-minute move, Warners sold the film outside of America to Netflix, a sign that while the romantic comedy might live on, it might not be on the big screen.
Isn’t It Romantic is released in the US on 13 February and in the rest of the world on Netflix on 28 February
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The next thing Natalie knows, the dreamy emergency room doctor (Tom Ellis) is getting lost in her eyes, and our newly clumsy heroine instantly charms everyone she bumps into in Central Park. Stepping into the street, she’s nearly hit by a limousine, out of which leaps her architecture firm’s playboy client Blake (Liam Hemsworth, whose Australian origins, like Wilson’s, are barely acknowledged), smitten by her “beguiling” personality. And Josh, who’s never had a girlfriend, suddenly finds himself on the fast track to marrying a swimsuit model (Priyanka Chopra) whom he saves from choking.
Such things happen in silly Hollywood movies, this even sillier send-up argues, although it’s infinitely more fun to suspend our disbelief and get swept up in the fantasy than it is to scrutinize how ridiculous these conventions are. While there’s virtually no risk that “Isn’t It Romantic” will make you love your favorite rom-coms any less, Strauss-Schulson hasn’t figured out how to have his cake and eat it too — to look down on the very confection he’s so busy peddling. Meanwhile, the script isn’t subversive enough to puncture the genre’s more problematic aspects, offering drive-by critiques of the patriarchy and the institution of marriage, only to pass off a fortune-cookie “love yourself” lesson as the solution to attracting the romance every gal deserves.
Best-case scenario, “Isn’t It Romantic” would have been the reverse of “Enchanted,” wherein a Disney princess tried to adapt to the harsh reality of New York City — only here, a hardened cynic tries to wrap her head around a flash-sanitized version of the Big Apple, where someone has magically erased Manhattan’s distinctive rotting-garbage stench, and replaced the liquor stores and check-cashing joints in her neighborhood with cupcake cafés and bridal shops. Though the premise differs from last year’s “I Feel Pretty,” the tone will feel familiar to those who caught Amy Schumer’s body-image comedy — and again, we’re left with the depressing realization that it somehow constitutes a radical act in Hollywood to feature shapely women as romantic comedy leads.
It’s not the most promising sign when one of the first things to happen to Natalie when she leaves her apartment is being broadsided by a runaway halal food cart (technically, that should have landed her in the hospital and triggered the rom-com delusions 15 minutes earlier), though Wilson intuitively understands how to leverage her body type as a comedic asset — as in the way she plays the climactic slow-motion running scene, listed earlier as one of the clichés we can look forward to watching the movie dismantle. Wilson’s high-wattage appeal shines brightest a few minutes earlier during a showstopping “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” karaoke scene that’s so well staged and edited, it feels like another director stepped in to orchestrate this set-piece.
The rest of the movie plays out more or less according to formula, peppered with references to far better movies. But “Isn’t It Romantic” recognizes one essential rule of the genre: However predictable the overall outcome, audiences want to be surprised by the details along the way. Here, that’s not so much whom Natalie will end up with as what it will take to snap her out of her delusion — where the delusion isn’t how cutesy her life has become all of a sudden, but the notion that she was ever undeserving of love.
A Warner Bros. release of a New Line presentation, in association with Bron Creative, of a Broken Road, Little
Engine production. Producers: Todd Garner, Gina Matthews, Grant Scharbo, Rebel Wilson. Executive producers: Jason Cloth, Marty P. Ewing, Aaron L. Gilbert.