Isn’t It Romantic: I Don’t Believe You, You’re Not the Truth, by David Bax
Roy Orbison crooning “Pretty Woman” over the opening titles of Todd Strauss-Schulson’s Isn’t It Romantic is just the first of many touches meant to signify how steeped in the world of romantic comedies the film and its world are. In practice, though, that choice is just a foreboding clue about what’s to come. Strauss-Schulson and screenwriters Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman want you to think they’re ripping the genre open and letting you see the gears but, really, they’re content to let those gears do the work for them without adding anything new.
Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, a New York City architect who’s disrespected by her coworkers and deeply cynical about love in both real life and cinematic forms. But, after a conk on the head (of course), she wakes up to find that things have changed. New York smells nicer, everyone’s incredibly attractive, her best friend, Josh (Adam Devine), is dating a supermodel/”yoga ambassador” (Priyanka Chopra) and her firm’s billionaire client (Liam Hemsworth) no longer mistakes her for an intern but, rather, finds her utterly infatuating.
We know immediately what these changes—and others, like the fact that Natalie’s former office confidant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), is now her professional enemy—represent. But not because we recognize the tropes from the many romantic comedies we’ve seen; Isn’t It Romantic doesn’t trust us enough to let us do that. Rather, in an early, shockingly lazy sequence that hobbles the whole movie before it even gets moving, Natalie has a montage/monologue explaining to Whitney each and every thing about romantic comedies she dislikes. Once again, Strauss-Schulson and his collaborators want us to believe they’re being incisive but all they’re actually doing is building a strawman for themselves to tear down. David Wain’s superior rom-com spoof, They Came Together, doesn’t expect us to laugh at jokes of manufactured recognition less than an hour old. But then that movie, like all great parodies, actually loves the subject of its mockery. Isn’t It Romantic doesn’t seem to think much more of romantic comedies or those who love them than its lead character does.
Strauss-Schulson, who also made the much smarter and more committed horror parody The Final Girls, shoots the pre-head wound section of the film with a shaky camera and a washed out color palette, which serves as a noticeable contrast to the warmer, more classical presentation of the rom-com fantasy/coma world. Though clever on paper, he perhaps over-commits to that conceit. The opening stretch of the film is just plain ugly and so we see the switch coming a mile away.
Cardillo, Fox and Silberman locate a good number of funny jokes in Natalie’s self-awareness about being in a romantic comedy. Her complaints about slow-motion, delivered in slow-motion, are hilarious. And a running joke about PG-13 movies getting only one “fuck” is topped off with an absolutely spot-on placement and execution of that single allowance. Those are the jokes that work, though. Wilson and Devine, as comedic performers, have always displayed a far out-of-whack effort-to-laughs ratio. And with Chopra and (this particular) Hemsworth not known for comedy, it feels like watching a cast full of alternates.
Isn’t It Romantic’s final sin is lifting much of its second half directly from My Best Friend’s Wedding. You’re not going to get far taking shots at one of the genre’s all-time best examples. And, on the other side of that coin, you’re not going to get far cynically leaning on its success to try to make your movie work.