Although the romantic comedy is experiencing a bit of a resurgence, its heyday was definitely in the 80s and 90s to the point where its conventions and tropes become so predictable that the genre kind of burned itself out, especially as studios moved away from the mid-budget film they could sell on star power alone. However, the tropes are so indelible that they’re instantly recognizable, and director Todd Strauss-Schulson has a lot of fun poking fun at those tropes while still showing love to the rom-com. His new movie Isn’t It Romantic balances lightly mocking the rom-com while also showing it the adoration only a die-hard fan could. A pure delight from start to finish, Isn’t It Romantic manages to be funny while still finding a new angle on a staid genre.
Natalie (Rebel Wilson) lives a bland, boring life where she doesn’t have the confidence to promote her work as an architect or even notice the affections of her friend and co-worker Josh (Adam Devine). She also hates romantic comedies, which she sees as phony, contrived, and pushing negative messages, much to the consternation of her friend Whitney (Betty Gilpin). When Natalie gets mugged at a subway station and suffers a head injury, she wakes up to find herself in a romantic comedy where everything is bright, colorful, wealthy, and PG-13. To wake herself up, Natalie figures that she has to make her hunky boss Blake (Liam Hemsworth) fall in love with her while going through all the motions of a typical romantic comedy.
For those who aren’t familiar with how rom-coms work, there’s a bit of a shoehorned in scene in the first act where Natalie goes on a rant against rom-coms so that audiences who aren’t aware of the genre’s conventions and flaws will be on the same page when those problems appear in Natalie’s rom-com world. Although the explanation scene is a bit clumsy in its execution, it at least lays out why Natalie finds the genre so infuriating. That makes her the perfect protagonist to go through a romantic comedy and pick through its imperfections and predictability while still going through the standard plot beats of the genre. The film is never so heavy on references that you feel like it’s a straight parody, but never so married to genre conventions that it loses its own personality.
What Strauss-Schulson does with Isn’t It Romantic isn’t too dissimilar to what his charming 2015 movie The Final Girls did with slashers. You can’t make a movie like Isn’t It Romantic and The Final Girls that literally lives in these movies without having an appreciation for the genre. Isn’t It Romantic isn’t a parody. It’s not like David Wain’s 2014 film They Came Together, which is far more biting and acerbic in its evaluation of the rom-com. At its core, Isn’t It Romantic is a really sweet movie that tries to upend the romantic comedy not to bring it down, but to see if there’s a better way to use its conventions. Can the gay best friend be a human being instead of just a servant to a heterosexual woman? Can the lead character want more than just the love of a man? Isn’t It Romantic pokes fun at all the trappings of the rom-com, but it’s deeply concerned with what the subtext of the story does and how it functions.
Wilson makes for a game lead who knows to have fun with the conceit while also being sharp enough to puncture the more irritating parts of the romantic comedy. It’s hard to think of other comic actresses who would be able to do this role as Wilson because, by her own admission, someone of her physique rarely gets to lead these movies. However, it’s her comic talent and presence that really makes the role work. If you had an actress who typically was cast in these kind of movies (assuming these movies really existed as they did back in the 80s and 90s), it would feel like the film was pulling its punch. With Wilson in the lead, Isn’t It Romantic gets to have its cake and eat it too, getting an affable romantic lead who still has the comic punch take the genre down a peg when needed.
I had a wonderful time with Isn’t It Romantic, and as a lover of rom-coms, I never felt like the movie was trying to hold itself above the genre as much as it was deconstructing it a bit for some laughs and to try and move the ball forward on some of its shortcomings. I don’t know how the film will work if you’re not a fan of romantic comedies, but I found it to be delightful and charming as a good rom-com should be.