Rebel Wilson was ignorant when she said that she is the first plus-size lead of a romantic comedy. She ignored a number of actresses who came before her in this genre—in particular, Queen Latifah, who blazed a goddamn trail—and then she made the situation worse by blocking critics on Twitter, especially women of color. It was a very bad look, and I’m glad she apologized, but I hope she continues to be more intentional and educated with her comments about the industry and the contributions of other women, especially black women, because I enjoyed Isn’t It Romantic, and I want to believe Wilson—who is so good in this film—can do and be better.
We already got an attempt at the meta romantic comedy; remember the Amy Schumer vehicle I Feel Pretty last year? In which Schumer’s character bonks her head and then Dickon Tarly falls for her and makes friends with Michelle Williams working a weird accent? I had a lot of issues with that film, and what made it so frustrating was a menagerie of things, but particularly the self-loathing that spilled out of Schumer’s character and into her interactions with nearly everyone, from her best friends to her love interest to her coworkers. There was an ugliness to I Feel Pretty, and a myopia, too, and I am so pleased that Isn’t It Romantic doesn’t go in that direction.
For the most part, this satire from Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman (three female writers, crazy!) operates from a place of bemusement. Isn’t it uncomfortable how people treat others like lesser-than? Even people who they claim to care about and love? How can we change that? The problem here isn’t that Wilson’s character Natalie despises herself, but that she’s used to letting people walk all over her. She has great ideas at work as an architect, but she’s never pushed herself to present them properly. Her assistant and best friend Whitney (Betty Gilpin, sadly underused) takes advantage of her by watching movies at her desk all day. Even her dog is kind of a jerk, withholding kisses and refusing to roll over.
All of this comes from her childhood, when her mother (Jennifer Saunders), after making a milkshake with ice cream and boxed wine, instills in her that romantic comedies are bullshit, love isn’t real, and she’s bound to end up alone. Years later, those are the beliefs Natalie carries, and so it’s less about how she looks and more about how she feels. All of that changes, though, when she smashes her head while trying to escape a mugging. She doesn’t wake up convinced that she’s now “conventionally” beautiful, as in I Feel Pretty, or able to read men’s minds, as in What Men Want. Instead, everything around her seems to be modeled after those romantic comedies she used to love, and that she now feels such resentment toward.
Her outfits are copies of Julia Roberts’s iconic looks in Pretty Woman, her block is full of wedding and cupcake stores, and her apartment is huge, filled with new clothes and a beautiful workspace and a freezer drawer full of Talenti gelato (truly what matters here). And the other elements of her life are modeled after romantic comedies, too: Whitney is now her enemy at work instead of her champion, because in this genre, only one woman can be the hero at any time. The hot client who ignored her before, Blake (Liam Hemsworth), writes his phone number on rose petals, throws them at her, can’t stop calling her “beguiling,” and now has an Australian accent to match her own. And her other best friend, Josh (Adam Devine, reuniting with Wilson after the Pitch Perfect films), who was so supportive and considerate in her normal life, is now in a relationship with swimsuit model and “yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra). How long is this romantic comedy reality going to last? And what will Natalie learn about herself along the way?
The genius of Isn’t It Romantic is that it can simultaneously mock the romantic-comedy genre for its awful elements (like that whole “women can only fight with each other at work” thing) while also embracing the fun stuff, like song and dance numbers, familiar love stories, and hot shirtless dudes. I’m sorry that I didn’t understand Liam Hemsworth’s appeal before, but I really get it now; Hemsworth very badly playing the saxophone with his shirt half-open is my new love language.
But director Todd Strauss-Schulson also pulls back every so often so the film doesn’t fully go down the romantic-comedy route it’s lightly mocking. Natalie talks about hating makeover montages, and the movie inches closer and closer toward giving us one, but then abruptly cuts away. Two characters are introduced and would probably work together romantically, but the movie doesn’t explore that option just because it seems like it should. And sure, someone tries to stop a wedding, but the conclusion is more My Best Friend’s Wedding than The Princess Bride.
Wilson is consistently funny and earnest here, leaning into skepticism and doubtfulness without being cruel or hurtful to her friends who do appreciate the genre she hates. She has great chemistry with Devine, and their bond here is more believable than it is in the Pitch Perfect films because it’s more about a genuine friendship than gonzo sexuality. And Hemsworth and Chopra both give very winking performances that let us know they’re aware of their own extreme hotness, but are willing to go against type.
There are other subversive things Isn’t It Romantic could have done, like include homosexual couples in any of the scenes where Natalie walks through New York City, surrounded by loving partners, and of course, a more diverse cast would have been welcome; the only character of color who gets a lot to do is Chopra. Romantic comedies have a long way to go as a genre regarding inclusivity, and Isn’t It Romantic could have highlighted that lack of diversity more by counterbalancing it. But a dance fight set to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and Hemsworth’s doofusness (did he study his brother Chris’s Ghostbusters performance for inspiration?), and a message about finding the strength to be “totally and utterly yourself,” in the workplace and beyond—I can embrace all of that. Especially because I know Queen Latifah was doing most all of this before Rebel Wilson ever did it in Isn’t It Romantic.
Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Bros., Warner Bros., Warner Bros., Warner Bros.