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.