The time when the world needed a scathing satire of romantic comedies has passed. In the century's first decade, when movies such as 27 Dresses and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days were as plentiful as roses in a Valentine's Day bouquet, Isn't It Romantic might have seemed like a bold corrective. Today, it's more of a bittersweet tribute to bygone folly. But while it may not be bold, it's still funny.
Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) directed this long-overdue star vehicle for the comic talents of Rebel Wilson (MVP of the Pitch Perfect series), from a screenplay by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox (How to Be Single) and Katie Silberman. Wilson plays Natalie, a New York City architect whose qualifications for rom-com heroine status end there. She lives in a dark hole of an apartment, speaks in an acerbic deadpan and, as her own mom (Jennifer Saunders) points out in the film's prologue, doesn't look like a typical contender for the America's Sweetheart title (not to mention, she's Australian).
Natalie quickly establishes her cynicism by delivering an extended takedown of rom-com clichés to her sentimental office buddy, Whitney (Betty Gilpin of "GLOW"). High-concept comedy convention dictates that she must get a comeuppance, so a blow on the head transports her to a world where all those cinematic clichés come true with ludicrous literality.
Manhattan becomes a candy-colored wonderland with cupcake shops on every corner. The sexy billionaire (Liam Hemsworth) who was a jerk to Natalie IRL is now madly in love with her. Her apartment is pastel and palatial. Her dorky secret crush (Adam Devine) is suddenly dating a swimsuit model (Priyanka Chopra). And, because Natalie's life is now rated PG-13, she can't even properly express her feelings about the situation.
Whether she's horrified, bemused or slyly seduced, Wilson's reactions to Rom-Com Reality never stop being funny. She's a sympathetic enough protagonist to carry us through the movie's shakier last act, in which convention again dictates that Natalie must return to reality with lessons learned.
The film's attitude toward romantic comedies is teasingly ambivalent — charmed by their optimism yet mildly appalled by their excesses. The script suggests that rom-coms are ultimately less about romance than about self-affirmation for their female audience, but that provocative notion isn't fully explored.
It's just one of several hanging threads in the movie's choppy latter half. A setup for a gag involving a classic makeover montage leads ... to an anticlimactic cut. Whitney undergoes a startling, funny transformation in Rom-Com Reality that likewise doesn't go anywhere. And the two musical numbers that paper over the cracks feel a little forced.
Overall, Isn't It Romantic gets more consistent laughs from its high concept than have similar recent efforts such as I Feel Pretty. Yet it's still Hollywood-cute, lacking the grounding and the frankness about romance and relationships that we see in many of the streaming movies and shows where rom-coms are, arguably, finding new life. Even Crazy Rich Asians broached serious issues such as culture and generational clash alongside the froth.
If the reality-averse rom-com is a thing of the past, Isn't It Romantic is an entertaining swan song, expressing appropriately mixed feelings about a genre that combined escapist fantasy with relentless aspirational lifestyle porn. More than anything, though, the film is an argument for putting talent like Wilson's in movies that don't involve makeovers, even ironic ones.