Just weeks after we reviewed What Men Want, a romantic (ish) comedy about a woman who hits her head – or something – and wakes up with the ability to read men’s thoughts, he we go getting Isn’t It Romantic, romantic comedy about a woman who hits her head and actually wakes up in a romantic comedy. It’s an old-fashioned plot device, one in which a character finds themselves in some physical mishap or debacle, only to wake up in an alternate reality or an alternate state of reality, from which they must escape by means of some indeterminate character growth. Off the top of my head, that trope can be traced back all the way to The Wizard of Oz, but the one many people are comparing this one to in fact is last year’s romantic (ish) comedy I Feel Pretty, which also featured a blonde, plus-size female protagonist whose insecurities about her outward appearance were the catalyst for the conflict. While the two movies go about tweaking reality in different ways – the first changing something in the protagonist and this one changing everything else – I have to also recognize the similarities. Once seen, they’re different enough to stand on their own, primarily through how they decide to generate laughs, but I do also regard them quality-wise on very similar playing level to the point that I might continue lumping them together for years to come. Anyway, while not the satirical breath of fresh air the creators were clearly going for, Isn’t It Romantic is certainly buoyant and colorful enough to qualify as an amusing diversion from the usual drivel we’re bombarded with this time of year. Not to mention it’s headlined by a perfectly cast Rebel Wilson, who may not be diving into uncharted comedic territory here, but is nevertheless tonally on point throughout.
In Isn’t It Romantic, thirty-something architect Natalie (Rebel Wilson) has gone through life in a love-hate relationship with the romantic-comedy film genre, wanting to believe in its message but convinced the events inherent will never happen for women like her. Her life is turned upside-down, however, when an incident involving a mugger at a subway station results in a head injury that leads to her awakening to a romcom version of her own life. Her drug-dealing neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) is now her gay best friend, her friendly assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) is now her cutthroat rival, and her aloof client Blake (Liam Hemsworth) is now smitten with her. And Australian. Convinced her only way out of this filtered version of New York City is to get a man to fall in love with her, Natalie opts to satiate these typical tropes of the genre. But what she will soon realize is that there lies undercurrent to the whole dynamic, and one that is reflective of the true struggle she has going on underneath.
It’s a pretty enticing concept, having a character be literally transported into a movie, though surprisingly enough looking back I realized I don’t often respond to its execution. Having characters dissect the genre they’re in, that’s all well and good and has been proven time and time again, but having them interact directly with it, that has yielded some mixed results. While many slasher cinephiles took to the 2015 horror-comedy The Final Girls, I found that it was really only there to make fun of its inspiration, and ultimately failed when it inevitably tried to become the real thing. Likewise, its lower-budget counterpart Midnight Movie is even more clunky and unconvincing. And before you ask, no, I have not seen the cult classic Last Action Hero. So believe me when I say Isn’t It Romantic‘s schtick wasn’t what kept me involved in the long run. Yeah, they get a series of clever barbs out there, even ones some casual audiences aren’t apt to put together, but there comes a time when a satire – whether it takes place in the real world or not – has to eventually embrace its inclusion in the genre. Because why else would the makers be making it if they weren’t ultimately fans, warts and all? Down the stretch, Isn’t It Romantic instead opts for a more sizable subversion, one that is more interested in its protagonist than itself. Which is unexpected and commendable in its own right, even if they didn’t entirely lay the foundation for the theme to begin with. It follows logically, meaning the viewer can easily connect the dots once it’s put forth, but it is a bit of a departure from what preceded it.
What does hold the movie together and keep it from slipping into forgettable mediocrity is the cast. Rebel Wilson has been a hot commodity as a supporting actor for quite a few years now, largely in thanks to her star-making role in the Pitch Perfect trilogy. While she may have Stifler’d her way into a leading role by the time Pitch Perfect 3 came around – at least; my memory for those sequels is shoddy – this is her first top-billed performance, and while many career background players experience rocky transitions into the limelight, Wilson more than holds her own in a vehicle that perfectly suits her talents.Wonderfully able to play both the straight comedic archetype and the funny side of the coin, she deftly transitions from scene to scene giving each and every one the right temperament that’s called for. Also noteworthy here is Liam Hemsworth, who I’ve often considered as not being the greatest actor to come out of the land down under. Here, though, he has a strong foothold in the kind of caricature he’s portraying, displaying the kind of comedic chops that could bode well for his career going forward. Time will only tell if he becomes my new Channing Tatum – bad drama actor turned good comedy actor – but this is certainly a strong start toward that ideal.
Is Isn’t It Romantic the best shakeup to the romantic-comedy subgenre since Love Actually? No, that would be Crazy Rich Asians, at least going by box office receipts. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its charms, the primary one being Rebel Wilson. 2019 will prove to be a big year for her, as she co-leads The Hustle alongside Anne Hathaway later this spring and is one of the premier talents headlining the musical adaptation Cats in the coming holiday season. If she’s as good there as she is here, she’ll have plenty to celebrate going into the new decade.
Final Score: 6/10