Isn't It Romantic review – romcom parody mostly hits its target

In a fun, glossy take down of age-old genre tropes, Rebel Wilson wakes up in an alternate universe, dominated by romantic comedy cliches

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.

By inserting Wilson into the parody, Isn’t It Romantic avoids some of the pitfalls of its spoofier predecessors. She’s an audience member incarnate, commenting on the silliness of the world she now inhabits with hyper-awareness and mostly disdain, increasingly tired of the constructed nature of her slicker yet emptier new life. What’s surprisingly impressive about the film is just how much effort is put into the intricate new world. Earlier scenes, in real New York, are drab, muted and easily recognisable for anyone actually living in New York while her romcom universe is carefully, extravagantly designed with bright, vibrant colours. There are potted plants on subway platforms, cupcake stores adorning street corners and even a shift in how the film is styled, from the cinematography right down to the editing, with credit due to director Todd Strauss-Schulson, who managed something similar with slasher movie parody The Final Girls. It’s invested, detailed world-building, the kind one would expect from a sci-fi offering.

Rebel Wilson and Adam Devine in Isn’t It Romantic.
Rebel Wilson and Adam Devine in Isn’t It Romantic. Photograph: Michael Parmelee/Netflix

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


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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