Movie Review: ‘ISN’T IT ROMANTIC’ cleverly rebels against outdated romcom tropes
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?
Rated PG-13, 88 minutes
Directed by: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Starring: Rebel Wilson, Priyanka Chopra, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Brandon Scott Jones, Betty Gilpin
Romantic comedies have a fascinating, dichotomous relationship with reality unlike any other kind of movie. They’ve shaped the zeitgeist with their beguiling fantastical nature, gifting us with well-earned escapism, but have also contributed to our pop culture’s toxicity, putting forth dangerous and unhealthy ideas about romance, self-worth and self-reliance. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson’s ISN’T IT ROMANTIC upends the table when it comes to tackling romcoms’ more negative notions. The poppy picture painted is absurdly hilarious, genuinely effervescent and revolutionary. It delivers empowering, smart and subversive statements that update the genre we hate to love.
From a young age, thirty-something Natalie (Rebel Wilson) has had it ingrained in her psyche that there are no happy endings for girls like her. It’s turned her into a cynic and a pushover when it comes to love and happiness. Not helping matters is the fact that she gets no respect from her dog, let alone her co-workers at a middling architecture firm in New York City. Her only friends are project manager Josh (Adam Devine), who (surprise!) has puppy dog eyes for her, and her mousy assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin), whom she lets obsessively watch movies during working hours.
Natalie’s world changes instantly when, during a botched subway mugging, she gets a concussion and awakens to find herself in a breathtaking fantasy land filled with tons of flowers, rain-slicked streets and immaculately-dressed, attractive strangers. Her apartment has gotten larger and it’s now filled with awesome furniture and a perfectly curated closet. Even her neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) has morphed into her gay BFF. Everyone is perpetually perky and no one is allowed to swear. It’s not long before it dawns on her that she’s trapped in her worst nightmare – a PG-13 romantic comedy.
While the bookends err on the predictable side (it’s designed to be that way), the stuff in between is an absurdly uproarious, dada-esque spit-take that doubles as a love letter to the genre. Strauss-Schulson, along with screenwriters Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman, brilliantly embrace and deconstruct the romcom, all the while carving out sweet, swoon-worthy and rebellious moments that are unique to their story. I dare you not to tap your feet and feel a rush of emotion (a.la. MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING) seeing Natalie throw down at a karaoke bar to Whitney Houston’s upbeat party-starter, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Self-aware, self-reflexive humor is this film’s lifeblood. It has to be with a satirical slant such as this.
The way the filmmakers make irreverent meta-commentary on romcom tropes is remarkable, as it’s not snarky in tone. The manner in which they contextualize the rules of the world is pretty ingenious. Every time Natalie tries to swear, she’s interrupted by a popping cork, or a truck backing up. When she attempts to have sex with hunky businessman beau Blake (Liam Hemsworth), it cuts to the following morning. The soundtrack also does a pitch-perfect job with winks-and-nods to songs used as crutches in romcoms (one running gag is Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”). But perhaps the most heartening and fulfilling aspect is how they tackle the stereotypical third act chase sequence. Here, it comes with an uplifting message driven by the character’s agency.
Wilson is a comedic force of nature. Part of what makes this comedy gold is her precise performance as a leading lady. She’s charming, captivating and radiant, even when pratfalls demand she be far less graceful. Hemsworth’s comedy chops are also on full display. He’s disarmingly fantastic hamming it up as a goofball, whether it be his delivery of the word “beguiling,” or in the quick asides that show him dancing, fighting a plant, or smashing into a waitress.
Aesthetically, the two worlds Natalie inhabits are remarkably different, reflected in Simon Duggan’s cinematography, Leah Katznelson’s costume design and the hair and makeup: Her reality is lit cooler in tone. Colors are grimy and beige. Hair and makeup are flat and frumpy. Her wardrobe is dowdy and dark with no real sense of personality. The romcom version of herself, however, is dressed flawlessly in rich, warm tones – with a few outfits inspired by romcom queen Julia Roberts’ looks in PRETTY WOMAN. Makeup is impeccable and unattainable. Daytime is draped in golden hour light that bounces off the perpetually damp, clean, flower-lined streets. Nighttime is lit by starry skies and glowing, saturated red and blue neon signs. Her highly-stylized new world is cloaked in a crisp sheen.
Overall, this is pure unadulterated joy for both defenders and disparagers of the genre. With a lead actress who’s easily one of the brightest and funniest in her field, and a devilishly clever screenplay, this film leaves audiences feeling like Meg Ryan in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY: Screaming out “YES!” in answer to the titular question.
ISN’T IT ROMANTIC opens on February 13.