Ostensibly a satirical play on its romantic comedy genre, Isn’t It Romantic has less in common with the smart 2014 parody They Came Together than it does the absurdly high-concept, literally magical peers it’s lovingly ribbing (most recently, the lackluster I Feel Pretty). It’s not so much a satire as Nancy Meyers’ Inception, diving from a relatively low-key rom-com and into an over-the-top, laughably genre-heavy dream level below.
The film continues an oddly specific throughline for A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas director Todd Strauss-Schulson. It’s his third comedy hyphenate to clock in right at that clean, succinct 90-minute mark. And like his last film, Final Girls, it sees Adam DeVine supporting a film about explicitly calling out and satisfying the demands of some very specific tropes.
While Strauss-Schulson’s Final Girls tackled slasher horror, Isn’t It Romantic obviously goes at romantic comedies. Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, an architect living in an apartment near the above-ground trains and not all that great for an architect. That’s kind of the point of this setup, though.
Shot largely handheld, Isn’t It Romantic’s intro is a breath of fresh, not-at-all fresh air. It shows a New York City that actually smells like it does; it makes a non-startup office look like a real, kind of shit office; a not-rich, single person’s apartment look like a kind of shit apartment; a dog look like a dog that hasn’t been trained to cover its eyes with its paws after the protagonist’s embarrassment. And it would actually be refreshing to see a rom-com in that world. But instead, that’s merely to serve as (relatively) grounded contrast to what’s to come: an unheard of mugging situation involving involving carefully timed train arrivals. During the altercation, Natalie gets clonked in the head, and she’s sent—strumming harps and all—into the dreamland of a romantic comedy. Or at least a confused idea of one.
Written in part by What Happens in Vegas and The Wedding Date writer Dana Fox, who should really know this stuff, Isn’t It Romantic somehow feels both conscious of and strangely unaware of the conventions it’s trying to wink at. For all the chuckle-worthy things it calls out—say, a convenient gay best friend, a Vanessa Carlton-fueled montage, or a strangely clean Manhattan block—the script’s desperation to exaggerate ends up with an equal level of confusing hokum. You know how modern rom-coms frequently break into wildly choreographed dance routines, or how literally every handsome man is always vocally attracted to the lead actress? Yeah, no one does—except, apparently, everyone who put together Isn’t It Romantic.
The central, willfully-clichéd storyline certainly rings true, though. In the earlier parts of the real world, we find that DeVine’s Josh is a close friend almost certainly into her, while her new potential client, Liam Hemsworth’s Blake, is an off-putting douche. In the rom-comiverse, Josh remains the same, but ends up dating model and “yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra); ripped but shallow Blake is suddenly into Natalie, but she still harbors feelings for Josh. And anyone who’s seen a rom-com can sort out the arc of how things will work out.
There have been enough dryer rom-coms in recent years that a nontraditional lead calling out tropes in a fantastical setting (again, see I Feel Pretty, but maybe don’t actually bother) isn’t exactly a revelation. Isn’t It Romantic as a whole isn’t either, but thanks to some funny and sometimes surprisingly earnest performances from its leads, it’s not such a bad addition to the canon it’s not-so-subtly deriding, either. Still, in ceding to its own head-shaking criticisms—when the film ultimately is a rom-com formula, however layered—it’s unclear what point this film is trying to make. Does the tired formula really work, if winkingly undermined by a character aware that it’s happening? Is this a weirdly inspirational sermon about treating oneself like an imagined, weirdly fawned-after rom-com lead? As a Charlie Kaufman script, the conceit has so many possibilities. Here, like with the rest of Strauss-Schulson’s work, perhaps it’s best they just wore a smirk and kept it brief.
Isn’t It Romantic
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 89 minutes
Cast: Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, Liam Hemsworth, Priyanka Chopra