The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Jane Horwitz’s review of “Isn’t It Romantic,” click here.
“Isn’t It Romantic” is a really-needs-a-question-mark-in-the-title takedown of romantic comedies. That means, of course, that we need the central character to be a person who hates romantic comedies.
That person is Natalie (Rebel Wilson), an architect who’s constantly mistaken for the office gofer. Her assistant (an excellent but underused Betty Gilpin) is obsessed with rom-coms, and streams them all day at her desk. This leads to Natalie going on an EXTENSIVE rant about everything wrong with the genre; it’s largely pointless, because everyone in the audience has already heard everything that is “wrong” with the genre. WE GET IT.
Of course there are some terrible rom-coms, filled with the offensive tropes that too often define them. I just refuse to believe that there are more bad romantic comedies than there are bad action films or bad horror movies. Still, it’s an easy category to sneer at.
Which is what Natalie does. After getting clonked on the head, she finds herself transported into the world of a typical rom-com, complete with a rich, handsome hunk (Liam Hemsworth) as the goal; a verrrrrrrry gay best friend (Brandon Scott Jones); and a lethally ambitious work adversary (also Gilpin, in the alt-universe version of Natalie’s previously sweet assistant; now she’s an evil equal who should have been given at least twice as many scenes as she has).
Natalie figures that she has to get to the end of her romantic, comedic situation to get back to normal, and she certainly knows how to play by the rules. As she navigates the route — in which she both abides by and slyly sends up the conventions of rom-coms — she starts to notice how her life has improved. Not just on the surface, with a now-huge apartment, better clothes and Liam Hemsworth showing up in a towel, but in how others perceive her. People respect her, listen to her ideas and are simply nicer to her. She has become the star of her own life.
One of the criticisms of romantic comedies is that they provide an unrealistic view of what a woman’s life should be. On the one hand, that’s true: If Liam Hemsworth in a towel is the ultimate measure of success, then we should all give up and settle for, I don’t know, Liam Neeson in a towel. On the other hand, plenty of modern rom-coms are about women coming into a confidence that should have been theirs all along and discovering that they are worthy of love, of that promotion at work, of Liam Hemsworth in a towel. A good rom-com doesn’t assert that women are successful only if they snag a man; a good rom-com celebrates that women deserve happiness, and sometimes that looks like Liam Hemsworth in a towel. (I’m hoping that repeating the phrase “Liam Hemsworth in a towel” will get me more clicks online. Liam Hemsworth in a towel.)
“Isn’t It Romantic” does a solid enough job of revealing the faulty and absurd elements that too often define rom-coms. But it also reveals the faulty and absurd assumptions people often make about any movie in which boy meets girl — and points out that sometimes it’s about girl meeting herself.