Like many romantic comedies, Isn’t It Romantic is a story about having it all. Not just a dreamy job, a dreamier boyfriend, and a supportive BFF, as one character helpfully itemizes at one point in the Rebel Wilson vehicle—though rest assured, the Australian comic’s put-upon architect Natalie lands all of those, too. Rather, the movie itself wants to be all things to all people: to scorn rom-com clichés while also embracing them; to spoof a genre while also inhabiting it; and to score points for self-awareness while also hitting time-honored emotional beats. On its face, it’s an effort as doomed as the real-life struggle to have one’s Magnolia cupcake and eat it, too. Incredibly, Isn’t It Romantic comes closer to pulling it off than you’d think.
Isn’t It Romantic wastes no time in getting to its outlandish premise, and neither will this piece. As a child, Natalie was a wide-eyed Pretty Woman fan with dreams of finding her Richard Gere. Now, decades of real life and the defense mechanisms it conditions have left her both timid and guarded, bulldozed by pushy coworkers while oblivious to her work husband Josh’s (Adam Devine) clear interest in dropping the “work” modifier. One friendly neighborhood subway mugger, all-out sprint, and very solid pillar later, Natalie suddenly wakes up inside the very thing she resents for giving her such unreasonable expectations. Her apartment is comically huge. Her standoffish neighbor is now a walking gay-best-friend stereotype. And every doctor, cop, and pedestrian in New York is suddenly a hunk one well-timed trip away from portentous eye contact.
With a transformative, medically dubious head trauma as its inciting incident, Isn’t It Romantic recalls I Feel Pretty, last year’s indifferently received Amy Schumer movie. Because this is Hollywood, it’s not a spoiler to say that the two films take slightly different paths to reach the same destination: The heroine—who departs enough from entertainment’s cookie-cutter norms to read as an unconventional star, but also conforms enough (attractive, blond, white) to earn a green light—must learn to love herself before she can love anyone else, a koan that sounds a lot less convincing from a Warner Bros. product than it does from RuPaul. Still, Isn’t It Romantic is, by nature, a great deal more attentive to the reasons self-love is in such short supply among modern women. After all, it’s a parody of a primary suspect in the Case of the Missing Self-Esteem. Isn’t It Romantic may not be the fangs-out assault on mass-market mythology you’ll find on certain parts of the CW, but its ultimate embrace of rom-coms comes after a recognition of, and slight correction for, their flaws.
Isn’t It Romantic never escalates to a full-tilt satire; the film wants you to invest in its characters’ love story. Nor is it the detailed, film-by-film homage, à la Ariana Grande’s recent tour de early aughts in her video for “Thank U, Next.” Most of the precursors the script evokes are true greatest hits, recognizable even to the most casual of fans: the shopping outfit from Pretty Woman; the voice-over from Sex and the City; the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally. For those even less well-versed in the form, Natalie actually catalogs the notes Isn’t It Romantic is about to run through in a strategically placed rant to her assistant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin). Rom-coms always pit women against one another, she laments—and sure enough, bizarro Whitney is a bitchy glamazon who hates Natalie’s guts. The opportunity to vamp turns a bland, thankless part into a standout role, and Gilpin, a national treasure, certainly makes the most of it.
Like many studio comedies, Isn’t It Romantic suffers from a mild case of Overgrown Sketch Syndrome, though the three cowriters certainly have enough firsthand experience to furnish a runtime’s worth of in-jokes: Erin Cardillo, who also retains story credit, worked on How I Met Your Mother and Significant Mother; Dana Fox on New Girl and How to Be Single, another Wilson project; Katie Silberman helped launch 10,000 rom-com revival think pieces with her script for Netflix’s hit Set It Up. (Isn’t It Romantic was directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson.) At just 88 minutes, however, Isn’t It Romantic is aware there’s value in efficiency. When the whole point of a plot is its predictability, there’s little use in malingering.
In this movie’s somewhat inconsistent logic, some rom-com critiques are meant more literally than others. Natalie rightfully points out that most entries in the canon aren’t diverse, a trope Isn’t It Romantic makes an effort to counter, albeit largely in supporting parts. Natalie’s romantic rival is a “yoga ambassador” played by Priyanka Chopra, ably executing the Rose-Byrne-in-a-Paul-Feig-movie shtick of surprising the audience with her underutilized comic chops. (Liam Hemsworth does the Jon-Hamm-in-too-many-movies-to-count shtick as Chopra’s male counterpart. Gameness runs in the family!) Brandon Scott Jones’s deliberately two-dimensional Donnie successfully errs more on the side of deconstructing the gay sidekick stereotype than replicating it. But these tweaks remain on the periphery of a story that still earnestly believes in the power of a good inspirational monologue.
Watching the movie head toward its inevitable conclusion, I found myself wishing Isn’t It Romantic centered its media criticism more than its loving tribute. Still, the criticism is there if you look for it. In the prologue, Natalie’s grandmother points out that Hollywood happy endings are reserved for people who look like Julia Roberts. As far as on-screen antics go, she’s right—and it’s hard to blame anyone, including Natalie, for internalizing that idea. Isn’t It Romantic counters this notion less through lecture than by example. Natalie’s climactic speech, using parking garages as a metaphor, asks what would happen if we took seriously what’s typically ignored or marginalized. She’s talking about her own self-image, but it’s easy to make the leap to romantic comedies as a whole. Maybe the way to prevent girls from developing a complex like Natalie’s is showing them that women who look like her deserve their own stories.
Beyond her proven ability to get laughs, Wilson turns out to be a credible mouthpiece for this sort of spiel. An actress who broke through as a comic-relief character literally known as Fat Amy, Wilson may not be a radical reimagining of the rom-com protagonist, but she does represent an expansion of its previously narrow parameters. Isn’t It Romantic can’t and won’t upend a template it holds so much obvious affection for. But it does model a path forward. The rom-com can either change or die, and it’s already come close to dying. Change is finally here, and it looks a lot like Liam Hemsworth rocking the sax.