I think I literally said these exact same words the last time someone released a romantic-comedy spoof, but here goes again: The world certainly doesn’t need another romantic-comedy spoof. It’s the easiest of targets, so much so that some of the genre’s classics already have a gently parodic quality. (Think: My Best Friend’s Wedding, or There’s Something About Mary, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) And we’ve already had several clever spoof attempts — albeit relatively under-seen ones — such as the surreal They Came Together, and the acerbic The Baxter. Besides, why kick the rom-com when it’s down? It has been in steady decline ever since its 1990s heyday, and now seems on the verge of extinction; to point out its clichés and reveal its hypocrisies today feels like an exercise in obviousness.
But all that also gets at the charm of Isn’t It Romantic, which nestles a playfully meta rom-com satire inside what appears to be another rom-com, and in its deconstruction of the genre hides the suggestion that, maybe, such movies still have their place. It’s the Inception of rom-coms. Sort of.
Rebel Wilson’s protagonist Natalie in this sense could be a stand-in for the film itself, a born romantic who uses cynicism as a form of avoidance. We see her in the opening scene as an awkward, plus-sized teen (played by Alexandra Kis) back in Australia, enthralled by Pretty Woman on TV, while her beer-swilling mom snipes at her to forget any delusional fantasies about finding true love. If someone like her showed up in a movie like that, mom tells the wide-eyed Natalie, “they’d have to sprinkle Prozac on the popcorn. People would kill themselves.”
Fast-forward to the present, and Natalie has become a mid-level architect at a big firm who gets easily pushed around, has little to no ambition, and (surprise!) even less self-esteem. In other words: She is a classic romantic-comedy heroine — even before she finds herself literally trapped in one.
That surreal, high-concept development occurs after Natalie is mugged on the subway, and, in true klutzy rom-com protagonist fashion, accidentally slams her head into a column in the station. Suddenly, she finds herself enthralling all sorts of hunky men — including Blake (Liam Hemsworth), her firm’s strapping, billionaire client, who had previously thought that she was just a coffee girl. (In a subtle sign that the movie secretly is the thing it appears to be pretending to be, this supposedly fantasy version of Blake has an Australian accent, which is of course Hemsworth’s own accent.)
Despite all the telltale signs, it does take a while for Natalie to realize what’s happening to her: She has to first notice that “New York doesn’t smell like shit anymore”; that her crowded, scuzzy neighborhood is now festooned with bridal shops, bakeries, and independent bookstores; that her surly neighbor has become her flamboyantly gay best friend; and that her kindly cubicle-mate Whitney (Betty Gilpin) is now her bitchy, be-stilettoed office rival. Only then does a furious Natalie finally scream out, “I’m trapped inside a f**king romantic comedy!” Also, she can’t say “fuck” anymore, so when she utters that word, a truck suddenly starts to back up near her. “F**king PG-13!” she then yells. (Isn’t It Romantic, in case you were wondering, is PG-13.)
Wilson can be an acerbic presence on screen — a little too quick and prolific with put-downs and one-liners that never quite sound as sharp as they should be — but here, the actress nicely balances Natalie’s submerged sweetness with her ongoing bewilderment and outrage at her predicament. She hates this too-sweet, pastel-colored world she’s stuck in — she can’t curse, she can’t have sex, and, curiously, she seems lonelier than ever — but she soon realizes that the only way out is to embrace her role in it. A male friend from work who might have secretly been in love with her all along is getting married, and she has to stop the wedding. It helps, of course, that our heroine actually has an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre — and that she has longings of her own toward this friend.
Isn’t It Romantic has plenty of fun toying with various familiar elements and sensibilities, but its deconstructions also feel like resurrections. There’s something comforting about such banalities, especially in an age when rom-coms aren’t crowding our screens anymore, and the love the movie has for its target can be seen in the confidence with which director Todd Strauss-Schulson deploys the clichés: the impromptu sing-alongs (that turn into full-on musical numbers) and the limo rides and the trips to the Hamptons. Like a gorgeous suitor about whom we may still have lingering doubts, the film wants to win us over. And while Isn’t It Romantic is unlikely to bring such movies back from the dead, in its have-it-both-ways attempt to simultaneously undermine and indulge the romantic comedy ethos, it reminds us of why they existed in the first place.