I tried, I really tried. I thought I could be somewhat objective about this film, but have failed utterly. Full disclosure: The film is directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, my former film student who became and has remained a friend. I love the guy. So I was watching very analytically (as he told me my lectures were going to be all over the film), and also, watching with bust-my-buttons friend-pride. I have to see it again—one, because it’s worth multiple visits, and two, so I can see it simply as a film. There are also loads of visual jokes that I’m sure I didn’t catch the first time around. See how many you can catch.
But in the meantime, here we go with some observations:
The film is fun and “out there” by all outward appearances, but is actually a tightrope walk as it sends up romantic comedy tropes while ultimately remaining true to rom-com sensibilities. I’ve often told my classes over the past 20 years that I’m sorry for them, as they have grown up in the era of the worst rom-coms in film history. I’ve only been able to mention a few good ones (e.g., Notting Hill, About Time, The Big Sick, 500 Days of Summer, to name a few) among the many adolescent crude-fests that have passed themselves off as a version of a rom-com. The few good ones put various intelligent twists on the genre; Isn’t It Romantic turns rom-com tropes upside down, then right side up again just in time. It’s smart, very funny, and sweet all at once, and it manages the near-impossible of sending up and embracing genre elements at the same time (much as TS-S did with his earlier meta-horror film, The Final Girls, a criminally underseen 2015 film that is fortunately getting mentioned again with the release of this new one).
Another huge success has to do with its lead, Rebel Wilson. Wilson is the perfect choice of the non-traditional romantic lead. She’s unconventionally large and exudes cynicism, but is under it all a hopeful dreamy romantic. But the dangers of casting her were avoided completely, another achievement of the film. Wilson has a wildly distinctive comic style, with ricochet dynamics and stop-and-go energy patterns that could be difficult to direct. Perhaps the film’s greatest feat is keeping this ball of dynamism contained within the confines of a romantic lead (she’s played supporting parts up until now). The film keeps her moving forward narratively, even when the tempo slows, and she fills the role instead of busting out of it. Good work, my friend.
The cinematography is not just beautiful, especially in the temporary rom-com universe the film creates. The camerawork is also hysterically funny if you pay attention. How the camera is “supposed” to act in this kind of film. The musical numbers in particular are lovingly shot and edited, and are standouts in the film, deftly hiding the obvious fact that Liam Hemsworth has, shall we say, limited dancing skills. And the production design is equal parts lovely and romantic-comedy tasteful.
I can knit-pick of course—but just a little. The specific references to romantic comedies in the beginning of the film were a bit too, as they say, on the nose. The specific genre was mentioned a few too many times when more general film references would have sufficed. And, spoiler alert: I’m not sure how or why Hemsworth’s character suddenly goes bad. Maybe I missed something, but it seemed abrupt. There are a few other “how exactly did we get here?” moments, but the film mainly takes place in Oz rather than Kansas (or to be more precise, dream New York rather than real New York), so the rules of fantasy have to trump the rules of logic at times.
My standard for evaluating a film’s ability to entertain, however, is not me, but my wife. I’ve occasionally joked to my classes that Hollywood would save a great deal of money by abolishing focus groups, and just show the film to my wife. If she likes it, America will like it; if there is something she doesn’t get or like, just change those things. She knows the director, but doesn’t have the same level of friendship with him as I do, and therefore was just enjoying the film as it was. She heartily laughed her way through the film (not always the case with comedies), and told me later she had to stifle herself for fear of embarrassing herself. She also said—a first—that she wants to see it again. Both actions are the highest praise, and a much more honest evaluation of the film’s ability to entertain than I could provide.
There are other strengths, too. The casting is well-nigh perfect. Adam Devine has a lot of history acting with Wilson, which makes for the easy camaraderie the film presents between the two. But he’s just perfect for “that guy” in a rom-com. Hemsworth (probably best known for The Hunger Games and for recently marrying Miley Cyrus) steals the limelight, at least temporarily, from his more famous brother Chris (Thor, etc.) and brings a combination of suaveness and silliness that’s not easy to do (and evokes more than a bit of Cary Grant). Priyanka Chopra (AKA Mrs. Nick Jonas) moves past Bollywood and TV’s Quantico with this comic role that leans easily on her stunning beauty. But perhaps the most delightful supporting character is television’s Betty Gilpin, who eats up her role as Wilson’s character’s assistant in a similar role and in the same way Emily Blunt announced her arrival as a serious talent in The Devil Wears Prada. Gilpin owns every scene she’s in, and her character has to make the most dramatic change from the real to the fantasy world. Her personality and physical makeover give the viewer whiplash, just as intended.
The ending of a film that consistently upends its own genre could be tricky business, but this one resolves not only well, but in a way that elevates the film. For those of a more delicate sensibility in film, note that a PG-13 film can contain one F-bomb. The film makes great narrative and comic use of this odd fact, and while it’s not this writer’s favorite word, if it had to be in the film, it’s used brilliantly. And then there is the beautiful, sweet, and touching next-to-final scene that wraps the film up story-wise. The film takes its time here, and plays a strongly romantic moment with tenderness and integrity in a way that surprises and delights after all the satire preceding it. Don’t tell anyone, but my eyes got wet, partly from the moment itself, and partly because of the surprise of that moment.
Isn’t It Romantic takes its place as a unique and delightful entry in the genre. There have been a number of meta films in the past few years, and pulling off a meta rom-com that’s self-aware, cynical, and ultimately not afraid to be openly moving is something to be applauded. It’s also something to be seen. And more than once.