If you’ve been to anything remotely comedic in the theater over the last couple months, you’ve probably seen the trailer for Isn’t It Romantic, the story of a cynical Rebel Wilson who hates romantic comedies, trapped in an alternate reality that is functionally a romantic comedy. The fast cutting of the trailer between calling out rom com tropes and Wilson’s reactions to how hackneyed those tropes are makes a damn good sell of what watching the film is like… but then watching the film is just basically that for eighty-eight minutes, and it never really does anything else.
I could probably end the review right there if I wanted to consider this job as solely a form of consumer reporting. Did you like the trailer? Do you want just enough of that on repeat to qualify for a theatrical release? Then knock yourself out! It’s Valentine’s Day, after all, so take your significant other or others and use this as an excuse to make out in public. There are worse things you could be doing and worse movies that you could be seeing, so who am I to judge?
Well, I suppose it’s my job to judge, and my judgment tells me that Isn’t It Romantic is adequate, but it’s also not trying terribly hard. It almost insulates itself against criticism with the underlying thesis that its protagonist, Natalie, needs to learn the value of cathartic fantasy as a form of self-love, so by going through the motions of the romantic comedy formula it is fulfilling that escapist function for Natalie at the same time it’s doing so for the audience. As far as metanarrative deconstructions go, that’s pretty clever, embracing a guilty pleasure attitude toward romantic comedies by poking fun at their narrative shorthand by embracing their surreality and acknowledging that life doesn’t function in this way.
But the fact of the matter is that Isn’t It Romantic just doesn’t excel at the com half of rom com, at least not any more than you see in that trailer. There are jokes about the hyper-sanitized portrayal of New York, the glamorous nature of fictional apartments, the absurdity of meet-cutes, the reductive portrayal of gay men as sidekicks with no internal life, and the kinds of editing, voiceovers, and musical cues that make romantic comedies such an identifiably singular genre. Yet when those are the only tricks the movie has, the jokes eventually start to feel less like jokes and more like a straight-faced use of those tropes with little more than an ironic wink to the audience. There are genuine moments of comedy when Rebel Wilson and co-stars Adam Devine, Liam Hemsworth, and Priyanka Chopra are given room to vamp and improv, but the film’s writing is stuck in an ever-tightening spiral of repetition and redundancy before finally stripping away the irony altogether to embrace an understanding of romantic comedy that’s about two decades out of date.
And the frustrating thing, from a critical standpoint, is that this is clearly part of the point. To criticize Isn’t It Romantic for becoming the very thing it mocks is to miss the point of the movie, but it also splits its time so evenly between being a farce and being genuine that it doesn’t really do a good job at being either. The audience I saw this with seemed to be enjoying themselves, but with that tepid appreciation of money having been paid for tickets and laugh lines subconsciously recognized as funny without provoking instinctual reactions. Is Isn’t It Romantic truth in advertising? Absolutely. Is that enough to make it good? I’m not even sure that word holds meaning here.