1 Hr., 28 Mins.
Isn't It Romantic
he other day, I saw Alita: Battle Angel, a feature that marks the first collaboration between James Cameron, the storied blockbuster filmmaker, and Robert Rodriguez, an artistic rebel who makes everything with the gusto of a B-movie director. While watching the film, I was struck by how much it evoked 1990s blockbusters without seeming too aware of it. It was as if Cameron and Rodriguez thought the 28-year-old Terminator 2:
Judgment Day was a recent affair.
Isn’t It Romantic, a rom-com satire that premiered on Friday and will be released internationally by Netflix on Feb. 28, is, by contrast, hyper-aware of how it evokes the past. Calculatedly put out the morning after Valentine’s Day, it stars Rebel Wilson, charming as ever, as Natalie, an Australian architect based in New York City. Though Natalie grew up a romantic, she's become hardened and cynical with age, and rightfully so. Her home is a derelict studio apartment, decorated with discounted furniture and a dirty white dog who doesn’t seem to like her very much. She’s pushed around at work, often mistaken for a “coffee girl” even though she’s a project manager. (Her specialty: designing parking garages.) Her love life is dry; her friendships are confined to the workplace.
Not long into Isn’t It Romantic, Natalie is literally forced out of the soured world in which she lives. After getting mugged on the subway, she inadvertently hits her head on a pole while trying to run away. Upon waking up in the hospital, something in the air has appeared to have shifted. Everything looks as if it were shot in Technicolor; she has a full face of makeup on.
When she leaves, she notices that she cannot get anywhere without some sort of accident: she's become weirdly klutzy. When she gets home, she finds that her apartment's once less-than-ideal conditions have vanished, and have been replaced by luxury furniture and decor. Her dog is now cheerful and groomed. Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” as well as voiceover narration, pops up constantly. She can't believe she's asking this, but: is she trapped in a romantic comedy? And is it PG-13? (The answers for both questions, unfortunately, are "yes.")
There is tissue connecting Isn’t It Romantic and something like Josie and the Pussycats (2001). The latter film isn’t a romantic comedy, but it is comparably a feature intent on lampooning a culturally ingrained subject to an extreme degree: It’s a balls-to-the-wall, comedic perversion of the music industry and consumerism. A long-running joke in Josie involves the exaggerated presence of product placement. One character takes a shower, for instance, and we notice that a McDonald’s logo is embedded in every tile. The idea of “selling” abides.
But also true, and something the film arguably doesn't address, is that even if you’re throwing about ads everywhere as a joke, you aren’t necessarily better than features who are subtler about their product placement. And if you’re trying to get people to buy tickets to your movie, and if you’re also trying to get rapt audiences to buy the soundtrack of said movie, are you much better than the industry and culture you’re making fun of?
In the case of Isn’t It Romantic, trouble comes from its way of both poking fun at platitudes and embodying them. During the first act, Natalie lists almost every recurring cliché seen in a plethora of romantic comedies dating back to the 1950s. When Natalie enters the romantic-comedy universe, the movie cleverly comes to enliven and call out every one of them. But once we get to the feature’s halfway point, where Natalie has to decide whether she wants to romantically pursue a sexy businessman (Liam Hemsworth) or a guy from work she really likes (Adam Devine), the film softens, so much so that it becomes less about subverting clichés entirely and more about reinventing them, albeit unimaginatively. The satire here can be observant and funny, but I wish its cynicism endured. It often feels more like a flavoring.
The last movie made by the director of Isn’t It Romantic, Todd Strauss-Schulson, was also a gutting of an analyzed-to-death genre. It was The Final Girls, from 2015. Its conceit is uncannily similar to this one. Only, instead of characters waking up inside a romantic comedy without much by way of a warning, it saw characters waking up inside a slasher flick. That movie, like Isn’t It Romantic, was most fun during its earlier moments, when genre clichés were particularly amped and characters were ripest to point them out.
But that movie also, like Isn’t It Romantic, eventually decided to take the expected route. The best satires, like The Great Dictator (1940) and The Player (1992), never think to pause and take the edge off a little. They are unrelentingly skeptical. Isn’t It Romantic might ultimately want to make for more of a fresh twist than a total inversion. But its indecisiveness as to whether it wants to be a celebration or a condemnation of the rom-com is unclear. Its send-ups, then, feel more innocuous than probably intended. C+