Todd Strauss-Schulson’s whipsmart “Isn’t It Romantic” bites into the romantic comedy genre early, with the familiar strains of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” — a classic on its own, but now one indelibly linked to Garry Marshall’s 1990 beloved “Pretty Woman.” While young Natalie (Alex Kis) is close enough to her TV screen to practically sit inside that Julia Roberts vehicle, her brassy mother (Jennifer Saunders) is in the kitchen, whipping up the saddest cocktail imaginable (a boxed wine ice cream float) and imploring her daughter to stop dreaming about love. “Life’s not a fairy tale,” Natalie’s mother sniffs sadly. Not for gals like them, anyway.
Twenty-five years later, grown-up Natalie (Rebel Wilson) has taken her mother’s lessons to heart. Romance? It’s not for her. Natalie’s entire life is drab and boring — hats off to the film’s set and production designers for crafting Natalie’s crappy studio apartment, her oppressive office, and a real-world New York City that are so realistic you can practically smell the character’s disappointment and disaffection — and her early love of rom-coms is a very distant memory. This will makes things all the more complicated when Natalie is literally dropped inside of one.
One terribly funny subway mugging later, Natalie wakes up in the world’s prettiest E.R. (“This is a Williams Sonoma!”), and the entire world is a better place (or at least a cleaner one, filled with flowers and with a soundtrack comprised of mostly Michelle Branch jams). Natalie is suddenly the heroine of her own sunny story, laden with all the trappings of the genre she despises. There’s the fancy apartment and the great job and the hunky love interest, but there’s also a “gay best friend” character (Brandon Scott Jones) who, as Natalie puts it, sets the LGBTQ community back a century through his indecorous use of every gay stereotype imaginable, and a riff with her BFF that speaks to the genre’s love of pitting women against each other.
Every trope, twist, and trick of the genre is up for skewering in the comedy, but the film keeps things light and smart, never dipping into darkness or crass jokes. It’s funny because it’s clever, but it’s also never cruel. The gags come fast and furious — even when the charming Wilson isn’t deconstructing a tired trope or serving as the audience’s own conscience in a dizzy world, visual gags abound in every inch of the frame, from a series of love-centric subway ads (look for the map that imagines New York City as a literally heart-shaped island) to background players that moon at each other, embrace, and often dance — as Natalie attempts to crack the mystery of why her life suddenly looks like the kind of movies she stopped watching when she was still just a kid.
Clocking in just under 90 minutes, the zippy “Isn’t It Romantic” never overstays its welcome, and it helps that Natalie gets hip to her predicament rather quickly. The cynical Aussie has no interest in staying in a fairy tale word, even one in which everything is adorned with flowers, her apartment has quadrupled in size, and Liam Hemsworth is ga-ga over her. Natalie, we know, is grounded to the point of being unable to appreciate good stuff even in her normal, dreary world, so the candy-colored charms of whatever dimension she’s woken up inside of hold zero sway for her. But perhaps they should?
The film’s script, from Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox (who previously co-wrote the underseen Wilson-starring charmer “How to Be Single”), and Katie Silberman (the brains behind Netflix hit “Set It Up”), can’t help but lean into the genre’s tropes when it suits the narrative. Early on, Natalie unpacks nearly every hallmark of the rom-com to her movie-loving assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin, always a welcome presence) and her suspiciously starry-eyed best pal Josh (Adam Devine), itself a winky element of the genre. Like plenty of movie heroines before her, Natalie is trapped in a colorless world of her own making, unable to see the fairy tale that might actually be written for her.
The film’s final message is, in keeping with the very genre it’s sending up, a bit of a cheesy one, delivered in classic rom-com fashion. (Did you really think this would end without Natalie enduring at least one desperate last-minute run to profess her love before it’s too late?) But it’s also a worthy lesson about love and respect, the kind that both the movies and real life itself could stand to embrace more often, even with a knowing wink.
Warner Bros. will release “Isn’t It Romantic” on Wednesday, February 13.