By Kim Hughes
There is something appealingly meta about Isn’t It Romantic, which is a kind of parallel-universe romantic comedy centred on a protagonist who claims to hate romantic comedies and arriving just in time for Valentine’s Day. While the film gleefully skewers the genre, perp-walking its many tropes — the gay best friend, the makeover montage, the meet-cute — it also leverages every one of those devices to advance its own plot. If Rod Serling made rom-coms, they would look like this.
It’s likely Isn’t It Romantic wouldn’t work if anyone besides Rebel Wilson played lead character Natalie, a cynical, single, unkempt architect who doubles as a doormat at work. Wilson is beautiful but far from typical Hollywood beautiful which underscores the film’s wink-nudge absurdity. She’s also funny as hell, delivering deadpan with Aussie-approved aplomb.
When we first meet Natalie as a pre-teen watching Pretty Woman at home, we quickly learn that her mom (a fleeting but spot-on Jennifer Saunders) won’t tolerate romantic nonsense. Love is for the lovelies, Natalie is told, and lovely she is not.
The film’s first third is essentially outlined in the trailer: adult Natalie, now scratching it out in New York, is bonked on the head in the course of a mugging. When she comes to, she has been magically transported into a real-life romantic comedy where fresh flowers abound and everyone is perfectly styled. In other words, Natalie has awoken to her own signature nightmare.
This is fun stuff, even as we know what’s coming, and the film plays it for broad laughs, introducing a Hemsworth no less — Liam, who along with brothers Luke and Chris comprise the hunkiest screen men known to Earth — as Natalie’s knock-kneed, billionaire love interest. In another clever sub-reference, Natalie trots around in a version of an outfit rocked by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Silly but completely on the mark and very entertaining for astute watchers.
As Natalie and those in her orbit morph into their rom-com stereotypes (the before-mentioned gay BFF, female work arch-rival etc) we’re invited to think about what all those Hollywood movies have been saying, and what they haven’t: namely, that fairy book love is about as likely for most of us as a giant Manhattan apartment with a closetful of Manolo Blahniks. And yet the genre proliferates, the unattainable continually packaged and sold as the aspirational.
Isn’t It Romantic frames that ludicrousness beautifully, and rather funnily even if, in the end, it ultimately is what it needles, right down to a show-stopping, Bollywood-style song-and-dance number and a proliferation of dog-eared category staples from Whitney Houston and Vanessa Carlton to Annie Lennox. It’s still way more fun than most others in the catalogue.
As an aside, what’s this trend of women being transported to alternate realities via smacks to the head? Counting I Feel Pretty with Amy Schumer and What Men Want with Taraji P. Henson, Isn’t It Romantic makes three recent titles with that particular narrative tic. Convenient maybe but rather unsettling…
Isn’t It Romantic. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. Starring Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine and Priyanka Chopra. Opens wide February 13.