WASHINGTON — The romantic comedy is one of the most beloved genres in Hollywood history, its pendulum swinging from masterpiece to guilty pleasure with fascinating regularity.
Folks who roll their eyes at the genre have likely never seen the better examples throughout time. If you’ve never seen “It Happened One Night” (1934), you’re missing out on Best Picture gold. If you’ve never seen “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), you’re missing out on the best cast ever assembled. And if you don’t love “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), you clearly have no soul.
Thankfully, both fans and foes of the genre will find comfort in the new rom-com spoof “Isn’t it Romantic,” a clever sendup that both criticizes and cherishes its brand. It may not break much new ground — its premise is another version of Amy Schumer’s “I Feel Pretty” (2018) with the magical realism of “Enchanted” (2007) — but it’s still an undeniably cute date movie.
The plot follows Manhattan architect Natalie (Rebel Wilson) who has become disenchanted with unrealistic notions of love set forth by romantic comedies. She vents to her peers, insisting that real love doesn’t work like the movies and pointing out archetypes that have become cliches. Her worst nightmare comes true when she hits her head and wakes up trapped inside a PG-13 rom com, wandering around New York trying to snap back to reality.
If ever there was a name fitting of its vessel it’s Rebel Wilson. The Australian native has carved her niche for coloring outside the lines. As such, she is adored by angsty adolescents, landing numerous Teen Choice and MTV Movie Awards as Fat Amy in the “Pitch Perfect” series (2012-2017). You’ll also remember her as the annoying roommate Brynn in “Bridesmaids” (2011) and stealing the show as Dakota Johnson’s party animal friend Robin in “How to Be Single” (2016).
While I never found her to be as charismatic or self-effacing as Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy — the present day titans of this type of movie — Wilson shoulders a risky high-concept premise with commendable charm. She manages to come across sarcastic without being snarky, cynical without being close-minded and vulnerable without being helpless.
Much of her likability has to do with her chemistry with co-star Adam Devine, marking their fourth time playing love interests after “Workaholics” (2011), “Pitch Perfect” (2012) and “Pitch Perfect 2” (2015). In “Isn’t it Romantic” he plays the friend-zoned co-worker to adorable effect, making his flirtatious intentions known to the audience without Wilson’s character realizing it.
The supporting cast also includes Betty Gilpin (“Glow”), who alternates between friend and frenemy; Liam Hemsworth (“The Hunger Games”), who’s convincing as attractive bachelor Blake; and Priyanka Chopra, who’s perfectly cast as the billboard model Isabella. Chopra is best in these types of roles, rather than her unbelievable FBI agent in “Quantico” (2015) or her over-the-top villain in “Baywatch” (2017). Still, the real standout is Brandon Scott Jones (“The Good Place”) as the “stereotypical gay best friend” Donny, who spits flamboyant zingers.
All of this might seem like standard rom-com fare if not for director Todd Strauss-Schulson (“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”), who devotes a surprising level of thought and care to the premise. While most rom-com directors remain invisible with even lighting and out-of-focus backgrounds, he intentionally opens with dimly-lit handheld shaky cams in the real world before shifting to well-lit, smooth dolly shots once we enter magical Rom-Com Land.
More impressively, he populates the background with clever imagery, showing engagement rings on street signs as if directing the characters to marital bliss. He never once overtly references these signs as part of the plot; instead, it’s the subtle stuff of artistic mise-en-scène that rarely shows up in modern-day rom-coms. Hats off for going the extra mile, sir.
These visual treats gel nicely with the script by Erin Cardillo (“Life Sentence”), Dana Fox (“How to Be Single”) and Katie Silberman (“Set It Up”). While they occasionally strain with overly polished musical numbers, the writer trio deserves credit for a laugh-out-loud sequence akin to “Groundhog Day” (1993) or “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014) that repeats the action of a towel-clad Hemsworth approaching Wilson’s bed in foreplay. The idea mocks how PG-13 movies always cut away before showing the sex, just as four-letter curse words are often bleeped.
These moments that mess with the medium’s form are where “Isn’t it Romantic” really soars. Along the way, we get nostalgic homages as Natalie grows up adoring “Pretty Woman” (1990), her co-worker religiously watches “The Wedding Singer” (1998) and her friends regularly reference “Notting Hill” (1999), “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002) and “13 Going on 30” (2004).
I wish there would have been more nods to the classics, demonstrating a comprehensive genre satire. Why not a nod to the “Lubitsch Touch?” The screwball antics of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges? The feminist infusion of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers? Even a dig at Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan?” This shortsightedness sadly limits the satire to a millennial’s understanding with missed opportunities for a larger genre deconstruction.
Of course, you probably don’t care about film history on a date night.
The real question: “Isn’t it Romantic?” The answer: Aw shucks, totally.
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