Last Rom-Com Heroine: "Isn't It Romantic" a smart, knowingly clichéd PG-13 romantic comedy

Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: February 13, 2019 (Wide)

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a clichéd PG-13 romantic comedy, but knowingly so, at once calling out and indulging in the general mechanics and conventions of every blissful rom-com. Having helmed a similar film-within-a-film conceit to ingeniously fresh effect with pathos to boot in 2015’s slasher-pic love letter “The Final Girls,” director Todd Strauss-Schulson employs a buoyant, breezy tone from a bright screenplay by Erin Cardillo and Dana Fox (2016’s “How to Be Single”) & Katie Silberman (2018’s “Set It Up”) that is always in on the joke and trusts audiences to do the same. Neither a full-on parody like 2014’s gleefully mocking “They Came Together” nor is it a “spoof” that thinks lazily referencing a number of films is the same as commenting on the genre (i.e. 2006’s “Date Movie”), “Isn’t It Romantic” is a gently meta ribbing with the brassy, appealing Rebel Wilson at its sweet center.

As a young girl in Australia, Natalie (Rebel Wilson) couldn’t get enough of watching romantic comedies, hoping she would one day be just like Julia Roberts and live happily ever after like in "Pretty Woman," but her straight-talking mother (Jennifer Saunders) squashed her dreams. Twenty-five cynical years later, she lives in a cramped New York apartment and works as an architect who designs parking lots. As opposed to her romantic comedy-loving assistant and friend, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), Natalie has closed her heart off to love and hates such movies now because they perpetuate lies to independent, goal-oriented women. After being mugged in the subway, Natalie takes a blow to the head, waking up in the Williams Sonoma-styled hospital room of a magical parallel universe not unlike a gauzy, idealistic romantic comedy. New York now smells like lavender and not garbage, her apartment building is now surrounded by bridal and cupcake shops, and her apartment itself is impossibly spacious and gorgeously designed. She also earns herself a flamboyantly gay BFF, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones, a scream), who lives to give her advice and hopes for a clothing montage, but has no life, job, or other interests of his own. Natalie’s suitor happens to be the rich and dashingly handsome Blake (Liam Hemsworth), who finds her positively “beguiling,” but wouldn’t you know it that Mr. Right is actually co-worker Josh (Adam Devine), who is already on course to marry stunningly beautiful swimsuit model and “yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra).

Smartly self-aware and pleasantly funny, “Isn’t It Romantic” has so much affection for its formulaic genre that it winds up becoming the genuine article of a romantic comedy, and a charming one at that. The film is both obvious and sly but always savvy in its criticisms of the genre's archetypes and tropes, like Natalie pointing out how problematic it is for two women to hate each other in the workplace rather than stick together, and Natalie realizing the fantasy Movie Land she's stuck in is sorely PG-13 when her four-letter words are perfectly bleeped out by a truck backing up and her sex scene with Blake just keeps cutting to the morning after. Thankfully, the film avoids being hypocritical and largely stays true to Natalie’s disenchantment with rom-coms. Sure, it gets to have it both ways, but it allows her journey to reach a wise, well-earned destination, being just as concerned with Natalie as it is about which guy she will be embracing by the end.

Receiving her first solo lead role after being a standout supporting performer in every film she’s been a part of, Rebel Wilson gives her most vivacious and fully formed performance as Natalie, making the character's arc, from a talented but put-upon doormat blossoming into a confident woman who loves herself and can stick up for herself, fun to watch. Game to pratfall on cue and commit to any shenanigans that come her way like she does in the “Pitch Perfect” movies, Wilson also carries over her sweet, naturally honed chemistry with Adam Devine, who’s toned-down but still energetic as Josh. The soundtrack, featuring Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles," Annie Lennox's "No More 'I Love You's," and Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever,” is well-chosen, and an impromptu musical number of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” in a karaoke bar is an irresistible highlight, where all the patrons and servers turn into backup dancers and nail the choreography. To send us on our way, the entire cast reunites for a big finish with an exuberant song-and-dance number to Madonna's "Express Yourself" before the end credits. While the script could have been written with an even sharper satirical bite, “Isn’t It Romantic” remains such a richly comic delight that proves romantic leads can realistically love themselves and fall in love. It’s just that beguiling.

Grade: B