This review contains mild spoilers for Isn’t It Romantic, in theaters February 13.
Isn’t It Romantic is the movie representation of watching a classic rom-com with your friends: You laugh at the dumb tropes (who runs out to get coffee with a friend in the middle of the day, 40 blocks away from where they work?), point out the absurdities (who wears prom-level formal wear on a date?), and a fairly good time is had by all — even if you can’t really recall what was so funny about that inside joke the next day.
Produced by Rebel Wilson, and directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson from a screenplay co-written by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman, the film is being marketed as the anti-rom-com — its Valentine’s Day release is a respite for the cynical audiences forced to sit through the Fifty Shades franchise for the last three years.
And it does effectively skewer some of the genre’s most love-to-hate conventions: The fact that it takes 18 seconds to travel through rush-hour traffic across three New York City neighborhoods, apartments that are spacious and tastefully decorated despite a basic salary, and a job description that somehow only exists in rom-coms.
The opening scene shows a young Natalie back home in Australia, mesmerized by Pretty Woman playing on the living room TV. Forget it, her overly blunt mother says, as Julia Roberts emerges from the sud-filled bathtub, wearing earphones. (How dangerous!) “Life’s not a fairy tale. There’s no happy endings.” At least — not for women who look like they do.
Fast-forward 20ish years, and Natalie (Wilson) is working as an architect, and living that glam New York City life in a shoebox apartment with an ill-behaved dog. Her lack of self-confidence means she’s pretty much overlooked at work. Instead, she pals around with assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin), who spends most of her day watching rom-coms on her computer, and Josh (Adam Devine), her best friend who’s been secretly pining for her, even as she continues to inadvertently friendzone him.
All that changes when, during a subway mugging, Natalie hits her head on a metal column. When she wakes up, she’s in what she amusingly refers to as the “William Sonoma” of hospitals, with a hot doctor calling her “lovely.” In other words, she’s landed in the rom-com version of her life, where hot billionaires like Blake (Liam Hemsworth) not only look her in the eye, but truly desire her for the “beguiling” woman she is, and gay best friends like Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) don’t have anything else to do but randomly appear whenever needed. The only problem is, rom-com world applies to everyone — even Josh, whose own meet-cute with swimsuit model and yoga ambassador Isabella (Priyanka Chopra) threatens to get serious just as Natalie realizes she may have made a big mistake in discounting him.
Trapped in a world where everything is just a little too perfect, Natalie finds out that the the key to her happiness has been right in front of her this whole time: herself. (That empowering message is a little dampened by the way it comes about. In a presentation about parking garages, Natalie compares herself to one — dark, closed off and overlooked — and presents her new, open, well-lit design.)
None of this is exactly innovative — Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty made a similar point in April, bonk on the head and all — but the film is charming enough to pull it off. It helps that at 86 minutes, the run-time is short and snappy, a welcome break from the bloated Hollywood movies it’s mocking. What’s more, the jokes are good. They’re the kind of observations you’ve probably made over and over, but with a bite heightened by Wilson’s great comedic timing and delivery.
The cast is really the selling point here. Hemsworth leans into his goofy Australian rich boy persona hard, and it’s delightful to behold. He’s just so hot, and so deeply, deeply one dimensional. And in a post-Priyanka/Nick Jonas wedding world, it’s hard to watch her fall in love with average white man stand-in Adam Devine and not feel like she’s in on the joke.
Still, for a film that’s entirely built on the understanding that these things are so ingrained in our culture, Isn’t It Romantic sure is hell-bent on explaining them over and over again. There’s way too much telling rather than showing.
What’s more, though the body-positive and self-love messaging is encouraging — the fact that it takes a candy pink fantasy for Natalie to self-actualize feels a little dated at this point. It would be far more groundbreaking to simply show a plus-size woman living her regular life, forced to choose between the adoring affections of Devine and Hemsworth, with no further mention of how surreal it all is.
Ultimately, Isn’t It Romantic is essentially the Not Another Teen Movie of rom-coms; a film that, in attempting to debunk the tropes, falls right back into them. Take the ending, for example, which features a high-octane song and dance montage complete with Hemsworth on the saxophone. A true satire might have instead fast-forwarded past the happy romantic ending, to show the ups and downs of a real relationship. (In fact, there’s actually a joke about this earlier in the movie, which never really plays out.) But where would be the fairytale in that?
Love means never having to say you’re sorry — for your guilty pleasures, at least.