A romantic comedy is the ice cream sundae to the vegetables of a heavy period drama. Savory and delicious and so laden with empty calories that you inevitably scold yourself for devouring it in the first place. That is, until you order it again. I’ll quit the metaphor now and note that Isn’t It Romantic is a clever enough takedown of the flawed genre we all know and liberally quote from. But in doing so, it forgets to adhere to the one essential component of any sparkly happily-ever-after. Big mistake. Huge.
In her first solo starring role, Rebel Wilson doesn’t stray far from her comedy persona: foul-mouthed, switched-on, innately endearing. The big exception is that her Natalie is cynical to the core, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. As a youngster, she was obsessed with watching her VHS copy of Pretty Woman. Then her mom told her in no uncertain terms that in the real world, girls like her don’t resemble Julia Roberts and get swept off her knee-high booth by a handsome billionaire at the Reg Bev Wil. She should just get used to disappointment. The words stick.
Now Natalie is living in tight quarters in New York City. She makes a living as an architect in an office where she’s still asked to fetch coffee. She doesn’t get invited to important meetings. A dashing exec (Liam Hemsworth) blows her off. A co-worker (Adam Devine) has a crush on her but she’s oblivious to it. When she catches her friend (Betty Gilpin) watching a Notting Hill-type movie on her computer at the office, she snaps. A rom-com is nothing but candy-colored artifice, she declares, and proceeds to list all her pet peeves. They’re all legit and funny.
No doubt Natalie needs to get out of her rut. She does it in a trite, roll-your-eyes way that makes Jennifer Lopez’ stumble into a sidewalk grate (and subsequent Matthew McConaughey rescue) in The Wedding Planner seem like a documentary. Like Amy Schumer in the recent I Feel Pretty, she bumps her head in an embarrasing accident. When she comes to, everything around her has changed for the sunnier and shinier, starting with a gleaming hospital room and a genial doctor that looks like he should be acting in a soap opera. Oh, no! Natalie is stuck in her own romantic comedy!
The bizarro universe in Isn’t It Romantic features all the tropes that are ripe for parody. And you don’t need to have memorized How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or 27 Dresses or 13 Going on 30 to know what’s in store. Hemsworth now speaks in a sexy Australian accent and whisks her away on an elaborate overnight date. True to a rom-com’s PG-13 form, we don’t actually see them get busy. Gilpin is now her glamorous arch nemesis. Devine is dating the wrong woman (Priyanka Chopra). And all the hijinks are set amid a gleaming Manhattan metropolis, an easy lob of a joke that will always be effective for those that pay extraordinary rent for shoebox apartments in the Big Apple, cough.
But a simple rom-com skewer doesn’t necessarily a hilarious or surprising film make. It also doesn’t automatically earn repeated viewings on a Netflix and Chill winter night. Cuteness only goes so far: Beyond a heightened reality, a true classic requires three-dimensional characters that embark on a relatable, well-earned journey to happiness. Sure it’s fun to fantasize that Richard Gere will pay you cash to go shopping on Rodeo Drive and fall in love with you. But we adore Pretty Woman because Roberts’ Vivian, in an Oscar-nominated role mind you, was priceless in her moxie.
Wilson has the goods to pull off the gimmick, but the essence of Isn’t It Romantic is indeed the gimmick. Characters and their growth are simply secondary. The problem is glaring as the wink-wink rom-com conceit — already revealed in giggling glory in the trailer — quickly becomes tiresome and cheap. It’s a shame: Hemsworth, Gilpin, Devine and Chopra are all talented and appealing comic actors. In this context, they’re supposed to be cartoonish.
Call me the queen of wishful thinking, but in my alternate viewing of Isn’t It Romantic, Natalie doesn’t bang her head and wander around in a phony reality. That’s a cheat. Instead, she figures out how get a handle on her self-esteem in a big bad and bustling city teaming with tourists that don’t walk fast enough. She gets the support she needs from her girlfriends. Maybe she gets the guy; maybe not. She’ll make mistakes and step in sidewalk dog poop along the way. But at least she’ll earn that contentment on her own accord. Isn’t it possible?
Isn’t it Romantic opens in theaters on Thursday, February 14