The romantic comedy has been in a state of moderate crisis for the better part of a decade. After spending the early aughts making easy money with pairings of largely interchangeable stars—Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey, Katherine Heigl, Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lopez … —rom-coms saw their box-office wave dry up abruptly around 2012. As the producer Lynda Obst, a doyenne of the genre, told Vulture that year, “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business.”
Some rom-coms began experimenting with out-there premises (the “She’s a woman, he’s a zombie” setup of Warm Bodies), while others presented themselves as another genre altogether (Silver Linings Playbook, for instance, or Moonrise Kingdom). Lately, many of the more successful entrants in the genre have been films that de-emphasized Hollywood movie stars and featured racially diverse casts (The Big Sick, Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before). But I think it’s safe to say that we are at a moment when no one has a particularly good sense of precisely where the rom-com is headed.
Into this cinematic breach steps Isn’t It Romantic, a would-be high-concept Rebel Wilson film that intends to revivify the romantic comedy by satirizing it. I am sorry (though unsurprised) to report that it does not succeed.
The movie opens to the song “Oh, Pretty Woman” and, moments later, to the movie Pretty Woman, which a slightly chubby Australian girl named Natalie is watching on TV. Her mother (a vastly underutilized Jennifer Saunders) warns the blissed-out child to “forget about love.” No one will ever make movies about “girls like us,” she explains, adding, “Someone might marry you for a visa, but that’s about it.”
Flash forward, and the now grown Natalie (Wilson) is an architect at a Manhattan firm. Sadly, her mother’s warnings about how no one will be interested in her appear to have come true, both romantically and professionally. Despite her career success, everyone in the office treats Natalie like a coffee girl. Even her best friend, Josh (Adam DeVine, Wilson’s co-star and eventual squeeze in the Pitch Perfect movies), seems to spend his days looking out the window at a billboard of a bathing-suited supermodel. Gone are the romantic fantasies of Natalie’s girlhood. She even berates her assistant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), for enjoying rom-coms, and proceeds to enumerate all the tedious tropes thereof: the adorably clumsy lead, her gay best friend, her female nemesis, the cheesy pop songs, the interruption of a marriage to the Wrong Person. (Take notes. As you’ve probably surmised, these will be important later on.)
In the subway, a man seems to flirt with Natalie. But no! He’s only trying to get close enough to punch her in the stomach in order to steal her purse. (This is one of those movies with the message “What matters is what’s on the inside” that nonetheless tries to get as much early comic mileage as possible by making fun of how its protagonist looks on the outside.) In the fracas, Natalie bangs her head against a steel beam and passes out. When she awakens, she finds herself in a romantic comedy. All of the aforementioned tropes are in evidence; every good-looking guy is now more interested in her person than in her purse; etc., etc. Even New York “doesn’t smell like shit anymore!,” Natalie enthuses.
If this sounds an awful lot like last year’s Amy Schumer vehicle, I Feel Pretty (in which Schumer bangs her head and comes to believe that she is the most beautiful woman in the world), well, that’s because it is. Yes, it appears we now have an official subgenre of pseudo-feminist movies in which a woman is initially presented as completely unattractive; is concussed into a fantasy in which she becomes impossibly desirable; and from the experience gleans important, affirmative lessons about believing in herself.
Sigh. At least Isn’t It Romantic is not as sour and self-negating as Schumer’s film (which was already an improvement on its genre cousin, Shallow Hal). The new movie, directed by the comedy journeyman Todd Strauss-Schulson, offers flashes of charm here and there, and a couple of modestly fun musical numbers. But its moral messages are frequently confused or contradictory, and the movie is neither particularly funny nor particularly clever in its dissection of the rom-com genre.
Natalie stumbles (literally stumbles) into the Perfect Guy, a handsomely bearded billionaire played by the youngest Hemsworth brother, Liam. Likewise, Natalie’s sweet-natured friend Josh ends up dating the very same supermodel and “yoga ambassador” (Priyanka Chopra) from the swimsuit billboard. Will these two mismatched couples find enduring love? If you don’t already know the answer to that question, then you clearly have not seen enough rom-coms. Isn’t It Romantic ends precisely the way you assume it will by the movie’s second scene.
Along the way, there are plenty of references to Pretty Woman, as well as nods—some better than others—to The Wedding Singer, When Harry Met Sally, Jerry Maguire, Notting Hill, Sweet Home Alabama, She’s All That, and doubtless others that I’m forgetting. And Natalie of course acquires a gay friend (Brandon Scott Jones), who is written as swishily as any 1980s-movie caricature. The filmmakers evidently believe that if an unpleasant comic stereotype is presented with a touch of irony, it will somehow be rendered no longer unpleasant.
This is of a piece with the movie itself, which consistently wants to have it both ways. It’s true that it is no easy feat to succeed as both a romantic comedy and a send-up of romantic comedies. Alas, Isn’t It Romantic fails on both counts.