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A Life in PG-13

Rebel Wilson
Rebel Wilson
Warner Brothers
 89 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Starring: Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth   
Isn't It Romantic

The old saying goes, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” However, that’s exactly what the makers of Isn’t It Romantic, a new romantic comedy starring Rebel Wilson, try to do. On the one hand, they skewer the various conventions of the romantic comedy in the same manner as numerous other films have done with numerous other film genres since the groundbreaking and hilarious Airplane. On the other hand, those same filmmakers want audiences to get past all the self-aware parody and then take Isn’t It Romantic as a semi-serious romance. That’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, and the movie doesn’t quite manage it.


The aforementioned Rebel Wilson stars in Isn’t It Romantic as Natalie, a New York architect whose career is far more successful than her love life. Since she was a child, she had been told by her mother (Jennifer Saunders) that Pretty Woman-style romances just weren’t in the cards for girls like her so, as an adult, she has come to despise those sorts of romances and delight in deconstructing all the clichés and stereotypes that inhabit them. Natalie’s cynical nature causes her to overlook the overtures of co-worker Josh (Adam DeVine), who is genuinely sweet on her. Natalie is sure Josh only likes her “as a friend” as she notices him staring out his window at work at the poster of a gorgeous model, Isabella (Priyanka Chopra), whom she assumes is Josh’s ideal woman.


Everything changes for Natalie when she gets hit on the head during an attempted subway mugging and wakes up in an alternate romantic-comedy universe version of New York. There, she lives in a huge luxurious apartment and has a designer wardrobe. Natalie also learns that the hunky real estate developer Blake (Liam Hemsworth) to whom her firm just made a business proposal is madly in love with her. Josh has found his true love as well, Isabella, and Natalie’s neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones), whom she barely knew, is now her ultra-swishy gay confidant.


Not surprisingly, Natalie discovers that she doesn’t really like this new version of her life, despite the constant attention paid to her by Blake and his declarations of love, and she gets jealous when she learns that Josh and Isabella are going to get married. However, when she tries to pay more attention to Josh, Isabella intervenes, resulting in a big musical number during karaoke night at a local bar (see clip below). Natalie is desperate to return to the real world, but she doesn’t know what she has to do to get there.


For the second time in a week, we have a major studio release in which a female protagonist gets a whack on the head and wakes up in a strange, new world. But, unlike Taraji P. Henson in What Men Want, Rebel Wilson’s Natalie figures out what’s going on fairly easily. Her problem is that she just can’t figure a way back to normalcy. But there’s a fundamental difference between the two characters as well. Henson’s character was dislikable but had a genuine grievance against the all-male corporate culture where she worked. Natalie’s problems, on the other hand, result entirely from her own preconceptions about love and romance and a case of low self-esteem. To its credit, Isn’t It Romantic doesn’t stoop to obligatory fat jokes; in fact, Natalie’s weight isn’t a factor in the film at all. Instead, it’s the frumpy way that she chooses to project herself in public.


When Isn’t It Romantic sticks to its central premise, the humor is quite clever, and the movie is often downright hilarious. The romantic comedy genre is ripe for parody, but, for whatever reason, most of the Airplane-inspired send-ups of the last few decades have stuck to easier targets like horror movies. The three credited screenwriters have done their homework and go beyond the obvious comic targets to create an idyllic version of New York, where the garbage doesn’t stink, and traffic jams don’t exist. Plus, as the film’s trailers emphasize, the PG-13 rating comes in for much spoofing as well, with Natalie’s sex scenes with Blake becoming oh so frustrating.


Unfortunately, as the makers of many of the Airplane-inspired spoofs found out, there’s just not enough comic material in the premise to support a feature-length film, even one that clocks in at a mere 89 minutes. So, when the premise begins to flag, the movie starts taking itself seriously again, as Natalie winds up jumping through as cliched a series of hoops as you’ll find to try to get back with the man she realizes she’s loved all along. I actually would have enjoyed seeing a full-length feature devoted to a romance between Natalie and Josh (after all, Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine were a couple in the first two Pitch Perfect movies). Unfortunately, Isn’t It Romantic diminishes the impact (and undercuts its premise) considerably by spending an entire hour explaining just how corny and unrealistic this sort of romance really is. As a result, even when Natalie has her big eye-opening moment, I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.


At least, Isn’t It Romantic has a cast that gives it all. Best of all is Liam Hemsworth, who capitalizes on his good looks and natural Australian accent (he gets a lot of comic mileage out of repeatedly saying how “beguiling” Natalie is) in a role in which he doesn’t realize how silly he appears. Another standout in the cast is Betty Gilpin as Natalie’s assistant Whitney, who is quite an original type of kook in the “real” part of the movie (and a very over-the-top stereotype as Natalie’s sworn enemy in the alternate world). For once, Rebel Wilson finds herself as the relatively understated lead in a comedy rather than the comic relief sidekick, and she manages to be very believable and likable.


Any chef will tell you that when you combine all the ingredients for two separate recipes, the results aren’t necessarily very good. Isn’t It Romantic has all the elements for a great parody and a good romance, but the components that make one part work often have the opposite effect on the other. In fact, this movie actually manages to be three films in one, as Natalie at first spends a great deal of time deconstructing all the elements of a romantic comedy and how ridiculous they are before eventually checking off pretty much all those same boxes on her path to happiness. In the middle is some sharp satire that eventually loses a lot of its bite. Isn’t It Romantic is a film that can be better appreciated for its parts than as a whole, even some throwaway moments like a second big musical montage over the closing credits. Not surprisingly, this movie arrives in theaters for Valentine’s Day weekend, a time when audiences are much more forgiving. On that basis, I’m willing to forgive most of the flaws and enjoy the good parts. It’s not as romantic as it should be, but it’s a lot funnier than most romcoms wind up being.

In this clip, Rebel Wilson leads the cast in a musical number.

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Isn't It Romantic (2019) on IMDb