ISN'T IT ROMANTIC featured

Having gone to a lot of movies in the 90’s, I can tell you of a time that nary a week seemed to go by without a romantic comedy or two in the top 10 highest grossing films of that period. It is this crop of movies ISN’T IT ROMANTIC both draws from and exists in opposition to. The clichés of them: the candy colored daydream worlds, the impossibly beautiful people with just the right lines, the strings of coincidences, bad decisions, and unexplained moments that combine to give the films their arc.

They are certainly ripe for a takedown. However, making a film that builds itself on winking at clichés can easily tip over into parody, giving you something like a DISASTER MOVIE for the romance set. Plus, even if the movie avoids that pratfall, its examining a genre that has had evolved in the years since that heyday with trickier and smarter fare like THE BIG SICK occupying space where a PICTURE PERFECT used to be.

Does ISN’T IT ROMANTIC manage the balancing act?

Isn't It Romantic: Natalie and Blake
Rebel Wilson has a giant hat; Liam Hemsworth is into it in a scene from ISN’T IT ROMANTIC. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros

The Idea Behind ISN’T IT ROMANTIC

Natalie, (Rebel Wilson) an Australia transplant living in New York City, lives a pretty average New York life. Her apartment is small and shabby.  It takes her 45 minutes to get to work despite her office being a few miles away. Her office is a cramped open space dervish of vague activity that serves to increase anxiety but seems to do little to actually help the employees get anything done. On top of that, Natalie is a bit of a pushover whose allergy to believing in happy endings has left her too shy to try and reach for any kind of brass ring.

Reality does seem to match her expectations though. She is overburdened by her co-workers with tasks that aren’t hers to do. She gets treated like the coffee girl by the new hotshot account, Blake (Liam Hemsworth). And then she gets mugged on the subway resulting in a concussion.

When she awakens, however, the rules have all tipped upside down. Everyone is hot. She can’t swear without being drowned out by horns or alarms. Her apartment has grown, her dog is disciplined, and she has a shoe collection to rival Imelda Marcos. Ask your parents about Ms. Marcos, kids.

Long a student of romantic comedies for the purposes of eviscerating them, Natalie recognizes right away where she has ended up, a romantic comedy version of Manhattan and her life. At first, she fights it like hell but eventually figures the only way to get out of it is through it. Even in surrender though, she finds the romantic comedy paradise to be highly unsatisfying. In every sense of the word, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC: Triangle
Rebel Wilson sees Adam Devine, and Priyanka Chopra vibing and does not care for it in ISN’T IT ROMANTIC. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Writing ISN’T IT ROMANTIC

ISN’T IT ROMANTIC does not work unless its script does have a good working knowledge of how romantic comedies unfold. You cannot amplify for comedic purposes what you do not understand well. On that score, the screenplay by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman succeeds. It understands the courtship rhythms and tropes of romantic comedies.

The problem is that sometimes the script forgets if it wants to send up or emulate. Take Blake and Natalie’s first date. A lot of it is ridiculously overblown — the yacht, the James Beard chef who is taking the day off from his restaurant to cook for only them, and the kiss in the rain. However, in the midst of that, the two B&E an ice cream shop. They sit on the counter eating ice cream and joking about Blake’s terrible taste in the cold sweet stuff. It is gentle, funny, and hell, I’ll say it, romantic. Either they missed their send-up in that scene or they got seduced by their own tropes. On the other hand, the scene does kinda sing still sing, so it is hard to hate its presence.

As the romantic comedy world begins to show its seams, the script loses clarity. Blake suddenly becomes a stereotypical jerk. He steals Natalie’s ideas for his new hotel and takes credit. He decides she has to quit work and become a housewife. I am not sure what romantic comedy they are pulling that one from. I have never seen one where the male romantic lead behaves like that unless it is for the contrived mid-film breakup. If that’s the writer’s intent, well, it sure does not play that way on-screen.

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC: shirtless
Liam Hemsworth appears to be in good shape in a moment from ISN’T IT ROMANTIC. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Casting The Leads of ISN’T IT ROMANTIC

Rebel Wilson has always carried a tremendous amount of potential and rarely found roles equal to that potential. I am pleased to say that for the first time in years, she has found a role that works wonderfully with her skillset. Moreover, for possibly the first time ever, Wilson has a character with depth to play that allows her to be funny but also feel like an actual person. Seriously, try to name one other Wilson character that functions on any other axis besides purely comedic relief.

Adam Devine, similarly, gets to dim his sometimes very grating goofiness to become a more fully realized character. When he does not have to bury the needle on the “arrogant and/or dumb” meter, he has a nice easy charm. This also allows him and Wilson to achieve some comfortable natural chemistry. Against all my expectations — formed, admittedly, mostly by the PITCH PERFECT films — I found myself rooting for them.

Hemsworth plays his part with suitable empty charm in the fantasy world and casual selfishness in the real world. His turn to male chauvinism in the fantasy world, however, does not work. Again though, as noted above, that feels like a script misstep.

Priyanka Chopra as the billboard model in the real world and Devine’s fiancé in the fantasy world has the least to do of the four. She does play cluelessly privileged well, but it is a shame the script never gives her much else to do.

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC: Dance off
Rebel Wilson and Priyanka Chopra dance aggressively near one another in ISN’T IT ROMANTIC. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

I loved Betty Gilpin as Whitney, the romantic comedy obsessive in the real world, a suitably de-glammed office worker who has such easy friendship chemistry with both Wilson and Devine. Her turn as Wilson’s ridiculously petty rival in the fantasy world is an absolute blast. She is so over the top and shines in her very few scenes. There is one exchange with Wilson where she only throws up the middle finger, and it is just a delight.

Brandon Scott Jones plays Wilson’s disinterested neighbor in the real world and stereotypical gay best friend in the fantasy world. He nicely illustrates the poisonous stereotype that still lands laughs, but his real-world counterpart has so little to do that there is no real counterweight. Unfortunately, the movie illustrates the problem of the gay best friend, but it never offers Donny any real kind of role beyond it, undermining its whole point.

Isn't It Romantic: Other triangle
Liam Hemsworth and Rebel Wilson react to Adam Devine in a scene from ISN’T IT ROMANTIC. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Filming ISN’T IT ROMANTIC

Todd Strauss-Schulson knows his rom-com aesthetics; that’s undeniable. There is still some static stiltedness to the film, but I cannot tell if that is on purpose. In other words, is it part of the heightening to make the fantasy world beautifully-art directed and colorful but inert from a shot selection standpoint? I assume so, I just wish Strass-Schulson could have dialed it up a touch more to make that clear.

His real-world approach nicely captures its averageness in ways that make the fantasy world pop. He does so with subtlety too, which is appreciated as it never screamings “pay attention.” If it did, the pacing would suffer, but Strauss-Shulson dodges that bullet.

Isn't It Romantic: Josh and Isabella
Adam Devine and Priyanka Chopra show their teeth in a scene from ISN’T IT ROMANTIC. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

That’s a Wrap!

ISN’T IT ROMANTIC is such a loving sendup of the typical generic 90’s romcom that sometimes it feels more like a meta-tribute. That is not necessarily a problem, but the movie would have benefitted from choosing one track and riding it throughout the film.

That said, I challenge anyone not to find this movie a charming distraction sure to send you back into the real world with a smile on your face.

Also, I can’t be too negative about a film that finally found a way to channel Rebel Wilson’s skillset to the creation and embodying of a multi-dimensional character.

It is not the best romantic comedy I’ve seen lately, nor is it the best deconstruction of the genre. Nonetheless, I have to recommend a movie that can be this sweet without making you feel like your teeth are rotting.

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