Isn’t it Romantic and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson
This review is going up PRETTY darn late considering it’s been out for over three weeks now, but I have a VERY good reason for taking my time with it! Okay, maybe not a GOOD reason, but the truth is that I got a serious case of writers block thinking about this movie. Yeah, the mid-February release is the one that locked up my brain for a lot longer than I’d care to admit. How could that be!? In the year that already brought us Glass and Serenity, THIS is the one I had trouble wrapping my head around!? Could it be that this is a multi-layered and nuanced examination of relationships and the media surrounding them, or is it just kind of… meh, but in ways that aren’t particularly interesting to write about? Let’s find out!!
Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a young woman struggling to make it in the big city and has abandoned love to focus on her career which isn’t going to great either because she’s a smart and overly competent woman who isn’t taken seriously at the workplace. Her best friend Josh (Adam DeVine) has a crush on her, her girlfriend Whitney (Betty Gilpin) is a bit quirky but always encouraging, and the new hotshot with a million dollar smile Blake (Liam Hemsowrth) is ignoring her ideas to his own detriment because she has some brilliant plans for his next project. Sounds a bit clichéd if you ask me, even the part about Natalie being cynical about love and calling out other Romantic Comedies for being unrealistic, but after suffering a concussion in a WACKY mugging scene, she wakes up and finds herself in a ROMANTIC COMEDYTM where everyone is a model, the colors are boosted up to eleven, and people will break out into song occasionally. Natalie may be fully aware that she’s stuck in a Meg Ryan movie by way of Baz Luhrmann, but the question is how the heck does she get out of here? Is this Back to the Future rules where she has to recreate the incident that got her there, or is this Groundhog Day rules where she has to fulfil some sort of destiny before she’s allowed to leave? Well she’s gonna have to try both at least, and when the first one doesn’t work out she starts to pursue the hunk-tastic Blake because of course that’s who she’ll end up with in these kind of stories and starts going to the motions as best as she can; which includes living in her overpriced apartment, starring in makeover montages, and even having an offensive gay best friend stereotype named Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) who lives next door and always pops up whenever he’s needed! Can Natalie survive this nightmare of high fashion, shallow problems, and unrealistic romance long enough to get back to her normal life of muted colors and an unfulfilling work environment? Will Blake be the key to her escape, or is there something ELSE she should be looking for instead? Doesn’t this feel a bit like a chicken and egg situation where figuring out if the cliché is more clichéd than the critique on the cliché?
Honestly, I have no idea what to think of this. I guess the aforementioned “meh” is a pretty apt description, but my feelings are less a confident declaration of mediocrity than a confused mishmash of highs and lows that can kinda sorta balance out to just alright, but for the right person can easily swing in either direction. It’s not even like an esoteric or niche thing where the film’s message will fly over certain people’s heads or it’ll appeal in such an overt way to some people that it can’t help but turn off others; it’s just… not very clear on what it wants to be. A good way to approach critiquing a movie is to determine what the filmmakers wanted to accomplish and how well they succeeded at that with discussions of why they wanted that message or its context within the broader culture springing forth form that starting point. I’d certainly LIKE to do that and I’m definitely gonna take a rough guessitmate as to its overall message, but its biggest flaw is ultimately that it never commits to what it’s trying to say so it ultimately means very little. Or at least that’s ONE way of looking at it.
The film that I feel this is gonna be compared to the most is I Feel Pretty which is actually a good starting point for really diving into the film’s flaws. Where I Feel Pretty had the big concept that tried to do big things and kinda landed on its face trying to do it, this one is relatively tame and doesn’t aim NEARLY has high which means that it has a much easier time accomplishing it’s much more modest goals. For one thing, I Feel Pretty had a much clearer point of attack against the typical romantic comedy formula (and the institutionalized biases that our media props up for the beauty industry) while not feeling the need to call attention to itself for doing so. Amy Schumer, while not an unattractive person does a great job of playing a character who feels as such her own faults and obsessions are clearly motivated by a world that had fed women these unrealistic standards their entire lives. Clear motivations, clear framing, and a message that uses both to make its point. Compare that to Rebel Wilson in this film who… I don’t know, is cynical? I mean sure, the movie checks off a lot of the same boxes (she’s looked down upon, people are mean to her, she compensates for her own self esteem issues with a tough exterior) but they feel really disconnected; mostly because Rebel Wilson’s character is just not all that motivated. Amy Schumer, despite her goals being shallow, REALLY wanted to reach them which drove the movie’s plot. Rebel Wilson wants to be appreciated more at work and maybe she should put herself out there which are the two most clearly defined motives for her, but neither of these things are really woven into the premise of her landing in a romantic comedy; nor are they meaningfully resolved by this experience. Completely separate from that, she finds herself in… well a romantic comedy, so by the time the movie gets back around to these two motivations it’s far too late to do so and made the climax of the movie utterly jarring for me.
Okay, but even if Rebel Wilson’s character arc isn’t well defined there’s still the big concept of the movie which in and of itself can be a fun and satirical send up of Romantic Comedies. Does it succeed at that? Well… it’s kind of hard to say, and PERHAPS I’m not the best person to be critiquing it as my knowledge of the genre is scattershot at best. The first question I asked is what the movie’s point of reference is and it’s a bit hard to pin down because of how exaggerated everything is, but if pressed I’d PROBABLY say the Nora Effron films from two decades ago that more or less defined the genre as we know it today. Then again, with just how over the top everything is it probably has more in common with musicals like Mama Mia than straight up romantic comedies which long ago and certainly now have a degree of self-awareness and even cynicism to them. Rebel Wilson herself starred in How to Be Single which checks off a lot of the Romanic Comedy boxes, but has a strong script, an empowering(ish) message; all without turning into whatever the heck this world is supposed to be. Okay, but the point of satire is to EXAGGERATE flaws to bring what is normal subtext to the surface and then examine them. What flaws it brings up however feel anachronistic and rather hack for a movie coming out in 2019. Now again, my knowledge of the genre is pretty scattershot, but I thought the idea of making fun of the over the top gay best friend was a well beaten dead horse and that most if not all (that trope showed up to some extent in Crazy Rich Asians) Romantic Comedies had gone out of their way to avoid. To bring it up here and to do so in such a pedestrian and cliché way doesn’t feel like its subverting the trope as much as it is indulging in it, and that’s true of almost all of the shots this movie takes at the genre.
Whatever the movie was trying to make fun of and show as outdated tropes eventually just became the movie itself and stops feeling like that much of an outlandish setting which I GUESS you could say that’s clever? Maybe? I mean the end of the movie makes it clear that it ascribes a certain degree of hatred towards romantic comedies to misplaced cynicism, but it seems to go SO far in that direction that whatever inherit issues it was trying to call attention to are… well, THEY’RE STILL THERE! Rebel Wilson comments that there are a lot of white people in this version of New York which is a valid criticism of how Hollywood often portrays it, but then the movie just keeps going with a non-diverse cast; the only exception really being Priyanka Chopra who is by far the least written character in the main cast. Now not every example they trot out is that explicitly harmful and the thing is that I’m honestly fine with so much of this movie being a straight forward, if exaggerated, romantic comedy. At times it almost feels like the Scott Pilgrim approach where the exaggeration is part of the appeal and considering the film’s confused understanding of its own message, you could easily take this just as sincerely as any other over the top romantic comedy. The movie is at its best in these moments where Rebel Wilson is having fun interacting with the people of this world and enjoying the extravagance of it all even if she’s still feeling conflicted and out of place. Just how much effort the movie puts into framing everything differently and the post production work to make it shine with saturated brilliance is much more engaging than anything else.
If the movie had either taken a darker approach to the material in order in order to solidify its message or went all in on its sugary sweet indulgence, then we would have had a much better movie. Instead, it can’t really decide on what it wants to be and finds this awkward middle ground that never feels right and keeps the movie feeling unbalanced even in its best moments which is a shame because the potential was there in either direction. Then again, I’m so conflicted on my feelings about this movie as well as my rather anemic understanding of the genre that it feels like one I’d have trouble outright condemning or telling people to avoid seeing. It’s not a bad movie, and the parts I like about it are worth watching, but it doesn’t particularly stand out despite its ambitious premise. Now if they do a sequel, maybes he should end up in a DIFFERENT genre, like a romantic drama or a historical epic! There you go, Warner Bros! I just created the Isn’t it Romantic cinematic universe ,and I bet it’ll be successful a lot faster than it took the DCCU to be!