The grrl-power scowls of Rebel Wilson, as the unwilling Cinderella in Isn’t It Romantic, might suggest that the contraption known as the contemporary studio rom-com is in for a roasting. But this isn’t that movie, not quite. It’s more like a good-natured joshing (cue the movie’s nice guy, Josh). It’s the story of Wilson’s put-upon Natalie, and how she magically lands (cue the bonk on the head) in precisely the sort of fairy tale she so disdains — a place where frilly romance infuses everything and a prince of commerce (today’s royalty) chooses her to be his one and only. She’s amazed by his attention but not especially delighted — and that refusal to be dazzled is one of the best things about a movie that’s more scattershot spoof than ground-shifting rethink.
The screenplay, credited to Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman, revolves around an inspired concept but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. A meta engine drives the movie, more or less: It’s a romantic comedy examining, if not quite dismantling, the mechanics of the romantic comedy. For all its winking jabs, this blend of giddy bits and teachable moments eventually follows the same old playbook. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson, who deconstructed slasher pics in The Final Girls and celebrated stonerhood in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, is better with visual shtick and exuberantly ditzy production numbers than the narrative connective tissue. There’s plenty of meh in this meta concoction, but that won’t keep it from attracting girls’ nights out and date-night couples during its Valentine’s week bow.
A mishmash of silly and snappy, meta and meh.
Wilson’s Natalie, an Aussie in the Big Apple, is used to being passed over at work and ignored by the straight male population in general. Even her pet pooch doesn’t respect her. A junior architect, she’s treated like a coffee-fetching assistant by most of her colleagues — with two key exceptions. First there’s the aforementioned Josh, played with awkward charm by Adam Devine (Wilson’s castmate in the first two Pitch Perfect movies). Endlessly encouraging Natalie into the spotlight at work, Josh can’t quite express his deeper feelings for her. And then there’s her ultra-earnest assistant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin, of GLOW, revealing impressive versatility), another true-blue cheerleader for the admittedly small Team Natalie.
Whitney’s passion for rom-coms ignites a daylong tirade from Natalie, and Wilson makes her character’s hyper-articulate contempt for happily-ever-after thoroughly convincing. But the movie doesn’t really share her scorn, which it traces to a crucial childhood memory. The problem isn’t rom-coms and the anti-empowerment dreams they hawk; it’s the defeatist mantra that Natalie’s mom (Jennifer Saunders) plants in her head, a reaction to the particular dream-hawking fantasies of Pretty Woman. As the tween Natalie (Alex Kis) gazes moonstruck at Julia Roberts and Richard Gere’s happy ending, Mom tells her the way it is: “There’s no happy endings,” she says, for “girls like us.”
And so, a quarter-century later, when a mugging-related subway injury takes Natalie through the looking glass into a world of supposed girlie dreams come true, she doesn’t trust it. But who in their right mind would? The streets of Manhattan are not only spotless but bedecked with flowers. Her clothes are fabulous, her apartment has been transformed from a mess to a magazine spread, and everywhere she goes men look her in the eye, enrapt. One of them, potential client Blake (Liam Hemsworth, having hammy fun, especially with rose petals and a saxophone), is the kind of man she’d normally be “extra-invisible” to, but in Rom-com Land he sweeps her up into a nonstop shindig of yachts, Hamptons estates and tastefully sexy morning-after scenes (to Natalie’s dismay, Rom-com Land is PG-13).
Whether Natalie is in dirty workaday New York or the dew-kissed, sparkly version, Wilson’s real-girl, anti-froufrou gumption makes it easy to root for her — and makes you want the movie to work more consistently. But the rules of this game don’t withstand close inspection. The premise grows muddled. With a setup that cries out for a delirious screwball labyrinth, the movie instead carts out a set of caricatures that, however well played, too often stall the story rather than propelling it. Priyanka Chopra shows up as a self-important swimsuit model. Kindhearted Whitney is transformed into a cutthroat work enemy, just because, and Natalie’s next-door neighbor becomes her requisite gay sidekick — a role that the screenplay pre-emptively declares retrograde and which Brandon Scott Jones, who played the bitchy bookshop owner in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, inhabits with over-the-top gusto. Non-ridiculous Josh is the one constant between the two worlds, for obvious reasons. This is, after all, a romantic comedy.
With solid contributions from cinematographer Simon Duggan and a design team led by Sharon Seymour and Leah Katznelson, Strauss-Schulson persuasively conjures a vividly imagined fantasyland, as well as a spirited goofiness amid the real-world grit. What fuels this sometimes flat-footed fantasy, though, is Natalie’s refreshing indifference to all the glamour. To the strains of Theme From A Summer Place, Wilson bats her miraculously materialized false lashes in disbelief. She aims an ultra-annoyed eyeroll heavenward, toward the voiceover narration — her own — that occasionally intrudes to guide us through her quandary. Despite all that’s disappointingly familiar about Natalie’s fairy tale, there’s a real person at its center. The key lesson she learns may be Self-Help 101, but it’s unexpected rom-com material, and no swoon-inducing fireworks are required.
Production companies: New Line Cinema presents in association with BRON Creative a Broken Road/Little Engine production
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Alex Kis
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Screenwriters: Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, Katie Silberman
Producers: Gina Matthews, Grant Scharbo, Todd Garner
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Dave Neustadter, Andrea Johnston, Marty P. Ewing, Rebel Wilson, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth
Director of photography: Simon Duggan
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Andrew Marcus
Composer: John Debney
Casting director: Rich Delia
Rated PG-13, 88 minutes