If there were such a thing as a Church of Romantic Comedy, Isn’t It Romantic, the new Rebel Wilson film, would happily nail a 95-point complaint to its door. In an early scene, Wilson, playing an architect named Natalie, delivers a lengthy diatribe against the genre to her assistant and best friend, Whitney (Betty Gilpin). There are too few female friendships in those movies, Natalie protests, and little diversity. Gay best friends are no more than fluttery fairy godmothers who help facilitate heterosexual romance. Women wake up in full makeup and perfectly coiffed hair. Couples always reunite after one of them runs toward the other in slo-mo. And, for Natalie, they’ve taught her that you’ve got to look and act a certain way to deserve love. Rom-coms aren’t just hackneyed, she concludes, but “toxic.”
Precedent suggests that the next step after delivering such a list of objections is to secede from the institution and start a new church. But director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman are committed to rescuing the pleasures of the rom-com from the genre’s shortcomings. Wholly dismissing a problematic artifact is the haters’ way out, they imply. Unfortunately, their attempt to reform the romantic comedy isn’t as thoughtful or as inclusive as it aspires to be.
Like last year’s similarly revisionist I Feel Pretty, it all begins with a knock to the head, this time mid-mugging. When Natalie regains consciousness, she finds herself in a glossy, storybook Manhattan romance. Gone are the crowded sidewalks and trash-lined streets of her outer-borough home: Now every block looks like it could be Sarah Jessica Parker’s in the West Village, filled with cupcake stores and flower shops. Natalie’s nondescript apartment is transformed into a giant Tiffany’s box, in which a homosexual confidant (Brandon Scott Jones) magically appears at contemplative moments. Her office, too, becomes the movie version of itself, complete with hoverboarders and a perpetually sneering, dramatically dressed rival (also played by Gilpin). Despite the welcome wardrobe upgrade, Natalie wants out of the fantasy so quickly that she’s willing to jump in front of a speeding subway train to fast forward to the end. No such luck: She’s promptly rescued by an Officer Handsome. When an even better-looking dude—Blake (Liam “Definitely Not Chris” Hemsworth), a quasi-charming billionaire and potential client at her firm—expresses interest in her, Natalie figures the least she could do is play along with the universe’s new rules. Eventually, though, she realizes that the story she’s forced to star in isn’t as straightforward as she thinks.
Isn’t It Romantic takes aim at the romantic comedies that reigned in the ’90s, from Pretty Woman to The Wedding Singer. (Sneak in a flask and take a glug every time the characters reference a Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan picture.) In the Australia-set prologue, Natalie’s plus-size mom (Jennifer Saunders) sighs to her similarly framed young daughter, “They’ll never make movies about girls like us”—one of several lines that highlight, then underline, then circle in red the movie’s women-empowerment message. But the effort often feels blinkered and self-righteous. The rom-com has a far longer history, wider racial range, and broader tonal spectrum than what the filmmakers define as the genre. And there are echoes of Wilson’s botched endeavor to sell Isn’t It Romantic as the first romantic comedy with a plus-size lead—it isn’t—in the film’s lack of interest in black rom-coms of the same era and its bizarre assumption that women of color, like co-star Priyanka Chopra, aren’t also impacted by dominant narratives about what a romantic lead looks like. The result is another Amy Schumer–esque revision of the rom-com in which the playing field is leveled for the particular struggles of the blond protagonist who isn’t a size 0, but no one else. Natalie might protest the whitewashing of New York by rom-coms, but Isn’t It Romantic trots out multiple supporting characters of color whose sole roles are to make the white protagonist look good.
Wilson lacks the emotional range for her leading role, but, as a woman clinging to logic in a world that has chucked it out the window, she hasn’t been this funny in years. Wilson and the writers particularly excel at making fun of the tropes we’ve watched so many times we’ve stopped questioning them. When Blake asks her out on a date and promptly makes a dashing exit, she has to yell after the car about the time and location of the plans they just made. Later, in her inevitable slo-mo run toward love, Wilson reacts exactly as a woman with a bra bigger than a C cup would if forced on a spontaneous sprint without enough support. (Ouch!) But the film’s nitpicky attitude toward its genre proves contagious, leaving me to wonder about all the unspoken makeovers Natalie undergoes. Does suddenly dressing in bold, bright colors as a larger woman, instead of her usual black, change her relationship to her body? Is her suddenly immaculate makeup and hair a rom-com perk, or did she do those herself? Perhaps if the character had a personality beyond “rom-com hater with low self-esteem,” those questions wouldn’t feel as urgent.
But Isn’t It Romantic mostly exists to give audiences of a more cynical era the permission to revel in the cheese of older rom-coms—drunken karaoke scene and all—and by that measure it mostly gets the job done. From the film’s first scenes, it’s clear Natalie is destined to be with her schlumpy but smitten co-worker, Josh (Adam Devine, Wilson’s on-again, off-again love interest in the Pitch Perfect movies), who embarks on his own relationship with a gorgeous model (Chopra) whom he meets as she’s choking amid a sea of passive bystanders (of course). Natalie’s hurtle through a series of rom-com clichés is supposed to convince us that anyone can be a Meg or a Julia. But it ultimately left me wishing that we could see that happy endings look different to different people, and that the journeys toward them can take any number of various paths as well.