Scalding Hot Takes: Isn't It Romantic
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with romantic comedies in that I love hating them. There is nothing in the world quite as pleasingly idiotic and insulting as a truly gimmicky rom-com, one that exists in a fantasy world with an anti-logic all its own, where everything smells like lavender and vanilla and the dog walkers and interns of the world have huge apartments in Manhattan.
The last romantic comedy I watched for this site, the Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 entry Beauty and the Briefcase, epitomizes why I find romantic comedies so fascinatingly terrible and so morbidly fascinating. It’s a made for TV Hillary Duff vehicle about a plucky young writer in the city who gets her big break when she pitches a story about the amazing phenomenon of, um, single ladies dating businessmen in suits that spins out of control in predictably idiotic ways.
The movie seemed to occupy a weird time warp world where weird feminism and the counterculture and the 1960s never happened, and every woman’s fiercest/only hope is to snag a well-paid, suit clad alpha male in her perfumed man-trap.
So I was the perfect audience for Todd Strauss-Schulson’s Isn’t it Romantic, particularly since I am a fan of Strauss-Schulson’s previous films, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, the finest entry in the Harold & Kumar trilogy, and the clever meta 2015 horror comedy The Final Girls.
The Final Girls is to horror what Isn’t It Romantic is to romantic comedies: a simultaneously knowing and affectionate deconstruction of a convention-heavy genre about a strong-willed heroine who finds herself living inside a movie and must figure out a way to get back to reality and not an alternate meta world of cinematic cliches and conventions.
In The Final Girls that’s Max (Taissa Farmiga), the daughter of a murdered scream queen who finds herself stuck inside one of her mother's movies and needs to figure out a way to survive in multiple levels of show-business reality and unreality. In Isn’t That Romantic, it’s Natalie (Rebel Wilson), a romantic comedy-hating architect in New York city who is leading a grey, sad life as an unhappy single woman pushed around at work and lonely in her personal and romantic life.
Then one day Natalie experiences what I like to call “The Great Metaphysical Bonk.” The Great Metaphysical Bonk or Zap is the accident that gives a flawed protagonist some incredible power, like being able to read women’s thoughts (in What Women Want) or catapults them into a fantastical alternate world after they wake up from a concussion in an annoyingly blessed, cursed cinematic realm where the honeyed lies of the romantic comedy have become their impossible reality.
That’s what happens to Natalie here. It’s Wizard of Oz time as she goes from the drab Kansas of her real life as a mildly depressed pushover to a romantic comedy Oz, complete with an impossibly vast and well-appointed home she would never be able to afford on a real person’s salary, a sassy, over the top gay sidekick who dispenses both canned wisecracks and earnest life lessons when narratively appropriate and two rivals for her heart: a billionaire with a Fabio physique and glorious mane of hair played by Liam Hemsworth (Chris’ lesser brother) and an adorable coworker who has a crush on her played by Adam DeVine, Wilson’s costar from the Pitch Perfect trilogy.
Suddenly the world is all unicorns, sunbeams, rainbows and sunsets for Natalie, which she finds both irritating and appealing. The streets are so clean you can eat off them and festooned with adorable little shops and cafes. And the flowers! There are flowers everywhere. Even where there are no visible flowers, everything nevertheless smells like roses and daydreams.
One of my favorite gags in the film is a split-second shot of a dude on a Segway when Natalie complains about the unrealistic nature of her new office set-up, which is as impossibly ideal as her old one is drab and grey. You really need to look closely to even notice the dude on the Segway, but that’s exactly the kind of telling detail that makes romcoms so aggravating that the movie absolutely nails.
Reality no longer has any dominion over Natalie’s life anymore. When Hemsworth’s preposterously cut billionaire dreamboat gives Natalie his phone number, he write it on the petals of flowers he then gives to her in a seemingly counter-productive romantic gesture of swooning pointlessness, yet when the time comes she’s able to read his number all the same because romantic comedies are full of nonsensical, cloying, irritating magic.
Isn’t It Romantic walks a tricky tightrope. It’s a rigorous and exhaustive romantic comedy parody that deconstructs the tropes and cliches of the genre to an almost academic extent. Yet it is also a romantic comedy about an insecure young woman learning to look beyond the expectations-warping, crazy-making madness of the romantic comedy and our traditional ideas about romance in order to love herself and value her contributions to the world.
DeVine in particular has a challenging role that requires him to be at once the satirical, parodic, comedically exaggerated version of the “Perfect guy who was there all along as the long-suffering, under-under-appreciated best friend” and a non-ironic, relatively straightforward version of the same stock character.
On a similar note, Natalie has to be realer and more legitimately flawed than the impossibly perfect rom-com heroines played by Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan in the rom-coms Isn’t It Romantic is gleefully, lovingly spoofing but she also has to have a certain fundamental dignity. She’s the vessel for the jokes; she can’t be the joke herself.
Like DeVine, Wilson does a fine job of walking that fine line. She’s simultaneously an audience surrogate heckling the movie from within, continually calling attention to the insulting artifice and implausibility of romantic comedy conventions and a relatively well-developed protagonist whose emotional journey is worth caring about.
Isn’t It Romantic understands that people consume romantic comedies despite their groaning idiocy and slavish adherence to cornball formula because the fantasies they promote are appealing, seductive ones even if you’ve seen them all before.
As with Final Girls, Strauss-Schulson absolutely nails the visual language of the genre he’s spoofing. After our heroine’s metaphysical bonk, Isn’t It Romantic becomes a sleekly pleasurable, ironic exercise in lifestyle porn where everyone is beautiful and in love, the lighting and make-up are always perfect and people break into intricately choreographed song and dance numbers spontaneously whenever the spirit moves them.
Romantic comedies have traditionally asked us to leave our brains at the door, along with our understanding of human behavior and how the world works and rewarded us in regressive but very real ways. Even when we’re laughing at these movies rather than with them, they’re giving us pleasure and enjoyment.
The romantic comedy as a genre is #Problematic, particularly in a post #MeToo world where hook ups with coworkers and bosses are seen in a different, more critical light.
In that respect, Isn’t It Romantic is at once a parody of a romantic comedy, a romantic comedy, a post-romantic comedy romantic comedy and an anti-romantic comedy about how learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
The romantic comedy is overwhelmingly a genre consumed by women (you don’t see a lot of Nancy Meyers bros out there) that has traditionally promoted terrible, regressive and reactionary ideas about women and their place in the world. Romantic comedies have relentlessly promoted the idea that a woman’s happiness is massively, if not exclusively predicated on finding a man to love them. They’ve portrayed women as natural enemies locked forever in a war for the affection, approval and love of men, rather than allies in the one true struggle: armed Marxist revolution against the capitalist pigs that will soon have the streets running red with the blood of the bosses and the oppressors.
Isn’t It Romantic drags the gender politics of the romantic comedy out of the distant past and into a more complicated, empowering and progressive future but not at the expense of joy or laughter.
I’m a sucker for musical sequences in non-musical movies. Think of the Killers sequence in Southland Tales. Isn’t It Romantic has a pair of joyful musical production numbers that afford Wilson an opportunity to really strut her stuff, to own the screen while simultaneously playing a character who begins the film a bit of a wallflower.
As the coiner of the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl I have an unusually personal interest in deconstructing romantic comedy tropes. I’m not a romantic comedy guy by any stretch of the imagination, but paying close attention to the largely reactionary, sexist conventions of the genre led to the phrase that will be my legacy, that will outlive me, that may even define me more than my advocacy on behalf of Juggalos.
Paying obsessively close attention to the weird, warped details of the rom-com universe yielded similarly rich dividends for the people behind this charming, clever and subversive deconstruction of a genre we love to hate and hate to love.
I make my living primarily through crowd-funding, so you can get access to patron-only content, join a nice community and be an overall mensch by pleading over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace