Tag Archives: C

ISN’T IT ROMANTIC

Producer: Gina Matthews, Grant Scharbo and Todd Garner
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Writer: Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman
Stars: Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam DeVine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott Jones, Jennifer Sauders, Tom Ellis and Alex Kis
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C

Trying to have it both ways, “Isn’t It Romantic”—why the title lacks a question mark is something you’ll need to ask the makers—starts from the premise that the clichés of romantic comedy are a crock and then proceeds to use them all on its way to a happy conclusion. Of course, in this case that involves not only the heroine linking up with the right man, but—in an age of female empowerment—learning to have confidence in herself, too.

Pudgy Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a hard-working New York architect treated like a dishrag by her shiftless colleagues. Growing up in Australia (and played as a kid by Alex Kis), she was beguiled (a word repeatedly used as a joke here) by watching Julia Roberts’ wish-fulfillment fantasy “Pretty Woman,” but her mother (Jennifer Saunders) told her no such Cinderella story was in the cards for her, and that declaration—along with living in a ratty apartment in the Big Apple alongside a dog that even shows her no affection—has led her to see her future as bleak, and to consider romantic comedies contemptible.

It’s a view that she explains at length to her good-girl assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin), recounting every trope in the genre that she finds appalling in a montage diatribe spanning three hours. As delivered in typically acerbic tones by Wilson, it’s an amusing bit, but it also serves a narrative function by providing a list that viewers can check off in the ensuing eighty minutes. It’s as if the makers weren’t entirely sure the paradigm would be clear enough in viewers’ minds for them to get the jokes, so they thought it best to give them a blueprint of what’s to come (as well as, in many instances, reminding them explicitly when the joke shows up). It’s a tactic that doesn’t evince much respect for the audience’s intelligence.

Not that the rest of the movie does so, either. The shift into fantasyland comes when Natalie gets assaulted riding the subway home from work, and bangs her head on a post; the bump on the noggin as catalyst is reminiscent of Amy Schumer’s “I Feel Pretty,” but it has a long pedigree before that. Natalie awakens in a plush hospital room and, once released, finds that her apartment has become a lavish luxury pad and her neighborhood a pastel-colored model of woozy gentrification. Even her dog has become devoted, and as to her wardrobe—it’s filled with gorgeous outfits.

Her office is no less changed. She’s now regarded as the star of the place, and though Whitney has morphed into her venomous rival, Natalie immediately catches the eye of Blake (Liam Hemsworth), the wealthy client who’d previously dismissed her as nothing but now becomes irresistibly devoted to her. On the other hand Josh (Adam Devine), who’d earlier followed her around with puppy-dog eyes, finds himself the love object of perfect model-type Isabella (Priyanka Chopra), so things could equally as well be told from his fantasy perspective. But in fact his romance is designed merely to force Natalie to choose, in the end, between the two guys. The outcome will tax no one’s psychic powers.

Along the way to the predictable conclusion, we’re treated to other spoofed clichés like the presence of an ever-present gay best friend (Brandon Scott Jones, who ratchets the stereotype level up to an eleven), the cutaways to avoid any real sex and keep to PG-13 standards (bleeping out F-bombs has the same purpose, though that’s hardly in keeping with the joke), and the use of slow-mo (which Natalie goes so far as to remark on while it’s happening). We’re even treated to reprises of famous lines from other rom-coms, always italicized as though they had to be hammered home for viewers who might otherwise miss them. One thing that’s missing, though, are the musical montages that usually obliterate dialogue for awhile, perhaps because they’d interfere with Wilson’s forte, the spiky, snide observations on what’s happening.

Instead we get some full-fledged musical numbers, which might not be characteristic of most real modern rom-coms but, because they’re well choreographed—a fact that earns one of Natalie’s better remarks—are among the movie’s most enjoyable moments, even if they are more Broadway than “Pretty Woman.”

Throughout Wilson is the very definition of high-energy, and she shows herself a good sport by doing pratfall after pratfall, of which there are entirely too many in the movie. Hemsworth gamely goes along with the exaggeration; that could be irritating were it not for the presence of Devine, who’s even more grating in that regard—he mugs to an appalling extent, and director Todd Strauss-Schulson, whose work is generally pretty pedestrian, overindulges him brutally, cutting away for his reaction shots way too frequently. One would be remiss not to mention Sharon Seymour’s production design and Leah Katznelson’s costumes, which create an appropriately splashy mood in the fantasy scenes (the “realistic” squalor moments are less successful), as well as Simon Duggan’s spiffy cinematography. John Debney’s score predictably goes the bouncy route.

When you come right down to it, the flaw in “Isn’t It Romantic” is that it takes on a very easy target and proceeds to beat it to death; it’s the sort of thing that would have worked better as a ten-minute sketch, and even at a mere eighty-eight minute wears out its welcome. It also pales by comparison to Peyton Reed’s 2003 “Down With Love,” a more sophisticated parody of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the 1960s that didn’t amount to much, but was pitch-perfect in look and tone. Revisiting it is not only more fun than this new effort, but proves that despite a few changes, the template hasn’t changed all that much over fifty years.

HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U

Producer: Jason Blum
Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Christopher Landon
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Steve Zissis, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Wendy Miklovic, Rob Mello, Sarah Bennani, Tran Tran and Blaine Kern III
Studio: Universal Pictures

C

You have to give Christopher Landon credit for trying something different, at least. The first “Happy Death Day” was a wacky horror comedy, a version of “Scream” told through the scrim of “Groundhog Day.” “Scream” remains an ingredient in the sequel, “Happy Death Day 2U,” but this time around it’s mixed with a strong dose of “Back to the Future” as well as the “Groundhog” repetition formula—the script explicitly acknowledges the debt. The problem is that the combination becomes unwieldy; simply put, the movie is a mess, though an energetic one.

At first it appears that Landon intends to go the most predictable route. The initial sequences of “2U” transpose the it’s-happening-again business to a secondary character from the first movie, Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), the roommate of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), the amiably geeky fellow whose niceness mellowed sorority mean girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) as she went through her ordeal of being repeatedly stalked and killed by a masked figure.

But the script, written by Landon himself this time around, soon puts Tree back at the center of things. It seems that Ryan, whose scientific brilliance the first movie hardly suggested, has been working with his lab buddies Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin) on a device that switches dimensions, one that presumably had a role in Tree’s dilemma in the first place. His attempt to use it to fix his current problem lands her back in the repetitive loop from the previous movie, but with a twist: she’s now in an alternate (but parallel) world where Carter is the boyfriend of Tree’s sorority-house queen Danielle (Rachel Matthews), and Lori (Ruby Modine), the killer in the previous picture, is still alive. And she’s not the only person come back to life in this revised universe.

A chunk of “2U” is devoted to the die-and-die-again theme, and to unmasking who the killer in this new scenario might be. But frankly this “horror” portion of the movie is treated as farce more than quasi-thriller—Tree’s deaths are jokey suicides rather than murders—and when the killer is identified, the revelation comes as a damp squib, provoking little more than a “who cares?” although it’s dressed up with menace. Unlike the first picture, this one doesn’t even attempt to be scary.

That’s all part of the decision to emphasize the comedic aspect of “horror comedy.” Some of the humor is mildly amusing, but other bits fall flat. All of the material involving Steve Zissis as a dean who wants to shut down Ryan’s experiment, for example, is a bust—and there’s a good deal of it, including a protracted, thoroughly misguided, sequence in which Danielle is enlisted to divert his attention while Ryan and his cohorts get the apparatus operating again. Simply put, “2U” is a lot less funny than it wants to be.

There’s also an effort to recast the story in romantic and sentimental terms. Stuck in this new dimension, Tree is irritated to see Carter and Danielle as a couple, and although one thoroughly odd bit involving handsome boob Nick (Blaine Kern III) comes out of left field in that connection, the question of Tree’s feelings for him becomes an important factor in whether she’ll choose, in a pinch, to go back to her “real” world where they’re an item, since—for reasons that won’t be revealed here—there’s also an important reason for her to remain in the dimension where they’re not. This new dilemma for our heroine generates little tension or interest.

Finally, there’s the sci-fi aspect of the plot. Though, as in “Future,” it’s presented in comedic terms, all the pseudo-scientific blather bandied about has a deadening effect, and by introducing obstacle after obstacle to the machine functioning, the script wallows in the absurdity of the entire plot thread to the point of irritation.

In fairness one has to congratulate editor Ben Baudhuin for juggling all the different elements in Landon’s script as successfully as he has, just as one can commend Bill Boes’s production design (except for Ryan’s ridiculous-looking device) and Toby Oliver’s cinematography, both of which are much superior to what you usually encounter in a Blumhouse production. The cast certainly engage with the material enthusiastically. As in the previous picture, Rothe gives her all, which is considerable; and Broussard makes an engaging partner for her. Vu, who has a much bigger part to play this time around, is fine, although sometimes he skirts the line between deadpan and boring.

There’s every indication—including some obvious suggestions at the end of the picture—that Landon and Jason Blum hope that “Happy Death Day 2U” will be only part of a continuing franchise. It’s a question, however, whether fans will be happy with what is actually a pretty radical change from the previous picture—a new recipe that doesn’t work all that well.