The thing about loving romantic comedies is that you see a lot of really bad movies.
Isn’t It Romantic seems to know this about the perfectly imperfect genre, that for every Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and 27 Dresses there’s a few dozen more movies attempting to replicate their magic, but hardly conjuring a spark. The same hallmarks of the genre that make the best of it so great also make the worst of it so painful to watch.
Ostensibly, Isn’t It Romantic sets out to satirize, or at least intellectually deconstruct this, before devolving into a confoundingly bad romantic comedy itself. The Rebel Wilson-starring film hits theaters this Wednesday, just in time to start Valentine’s Day fights between any couple in which someone makes the grave mistake of thinking this movie would make for a cute date.
Isn’t It Romantic found itself mired in controversy months before its release, with Wilson mistakenly claiming she was the first plus-size star of a romantic comedy, erasing the accomplishments of Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique, and then blocking black people who criticized her on Twitter. The actual movie does little to earn back any good will after that fiasco.
The film, directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and written by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman, stars Wilson as Natalie, an architect who lives in a dingy studio apartment in New York City who spends life rejecting the idea of happily-ever-afters for the pragmatism of real life. “They’ll never make a movie about girls like us,” her mother (Jennifer Saunders) told her as a child after catching her watching Pretty Woman. “It will be too sad.”
She’s disrespected at work. She can’t see that her coworker, played by Adam Devine, is clearly in love with her. As a runaway food cart comes barreling towards her down the street, your rom-com trained brain waits for a Prince Charming to whisk her out of harm’s way. Instead the food cart’s owner forces her to violently stop it with her body.
When her assistant (Betty Gilpin) watches Sweet Home Alabama at work, Natalie calls the movie a “masterpiece of shit.”
If you’ve ever had a coworker who mistakes things like “complaining about rom-coms” for a personality, then you have a pretty good grasp on this movie’s charms.
At her assistant’s urging, Natalie decides to open herself up, thinking that a guy is flirting with her on the subway. He mugs her instead, and she hits her head while running away. She wakes up in hospital room so nice she thinks she’s in a Williams Sonoma, treated by a doctor so attractive she doesn’t trust his expertise.
She is trapped inside her worst nightmare—a rom-com—and she can’t wait to get out.
The most egregious thing about Isn’t It Romantic is that its intended audience is clearly the most unabashed of romantic comedy fans. Anyone who actually espouses the movie’s marketing taglines, “none of the feels” and “rom-coms are a lie,” would break out in hives within the first three minutes of the film. That kind of critical nastiness towards rom-coms is an attitude so dated not even a movie as hackneyed as Isn’t It Romantic would think it can buy the film any relevance or pop-culture capital.
Instead it’s a movie that relies entirely on the audiences’ love and appreciation for familiar rom-com tenets, but written in such a cynical and removed way that it doesn’t seem to have any affection for them itself.
You recognize all the rom-com tropes that are being mocked.
Natalie’s drab city block is suddenly lined with bridal boutiques and cupcake shops. Extras walking about 12 dogs at once pass by. Her apartment has comically tripled in size. Her office is now a slick loft, where all anyone talks about is the vague “Big Presentation.” Cars somehow cross entire city boroughs in a matter of a seconds. She now has an omnipresent gay best friend (Brandon Scott Jones) who pops up to guide her through makeover montages and emotional epiphanies. That Vanessa Carlton song is always playing. Liam Hemsworth has charisma.
That’s the entire joke, just listing these tropes. “Yep! That is certainly a thing that happens in a rom-com.” There is no commentary about them, other than that rom-coms’ aspirational depiction of life isn’t realistic. It expects the audience to do all the work, waiting for you to recognize all the clichés on the film’s checklist and figure out for yourself what the perspective is behind them. (I’m still trying…)
It goes without saying that, as it mocks the idea of romantic comedies, the film transforms into a romantic comedy itself.
There’s nothing wrong with that high-concept conceit. In terms of the genre, it’s genius in its inevitability: Often, the best rom-coms are the ones that lean in to audience expectations unapologetically. And this is where Isn’t It Romantic, for all its self-satisfied listing of rom-com signatures, exposes itself as not understanding romantic comedies at all. Its own romantic storyline is so muddled, so confusing, so rushed, and so superficial that you almost don’t realize it’s happening at all.
At some point in all that meta mess, the movie also decides it’s going to pivot to a self-empowerment message, giving you whiplash, it comes out of nowhere so fast. The film’s emotional climax now comes when, I kid you not, Wilson’s character compares her self-worth to a parking garage.
I didn’t even cry at the end. I can’t stress enough how low the bar is to get me to cry at the end at romantic comedies. (I love love!)
The rom-com has been reinvented, reborn, twisted, embraced, mocked, and revived too many times to keep count, but enough to rule once and for all that the genre is alive, beloved, and, more, has creative and cinematic value.
The cycle of the conversation surrounding rom-coms is back to the point of celebration, with the past year finding huge hits in Crazy Rich Asians, Set It Up, Dumplin’, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. It’s shrewd to capitalize on that boom with a love letter masked as satire. But Isn’t It Romantic isn’t that. It doesn’t quite know what it is, really. Scary Movie, but for rom-coms? A feature length Saturday Night Live sketch? We fear that it thinks it’s actually a romantic comedy itself. How bleak.
It’s the kind of the film that those who hate the genre can use as a case study for why, but that seems to have been made for people who actually love it. It’s fitting, then, that I suspect it’s anyone who actually likes romantic comedies who is going to hate Isn’t It Romantic the most.