The existence of the romcom as a genre is often considered formulaic and vapid. Many people love to hate, and a trashy romcom is the supposedly lowest ranking of cinema. And yet, for others, the romcom is actually one of the most celebrated genres in cinema, where people live for the magical moments, the predictable tropes and the happy endings of it all. However, it is not what it is without its many critiques; whether it’s not diverse enough, or it’s too heteronormative, or it doesn’t cater to the reality of the world. In Todd Strauss-Schulson’s Isn’t it Romantic, the argument is laid out that anyone could have the life of a protagonist in a romantic comedy, no matter how silly or hopeless this actually looks like.
Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, an Australian architect living in New York. For her, life is all about work and wanting to prove herself that she is worthy of visibility. She didn’t used to be like this – she used to be dreaming of a love, one great love. When she was a kid, she was watching and falling head over heels to Pretty Woman, but her dream sesh was shattered completely by her mother. “Love’s not a fairytale […] Girls like us don’t get that.” As a young woman, this was quite a sobering statement that she had to swallow. But her assistant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), loves to watch romcom movies in the office and her best friend Josh (Adam Devine) supports her on it. Natalie is so bothered by it that she ends up nagging Whitney and Josh on the cliches of all of those movies. When she is on the way home, she knocks herself unconscious at the subway station, and finds herself actually living the romcom life – with all of its bizarreness and clumsiness and exaggeration. The premise promises a story that is supposed to sweep us off of our feet. But it doesn’t. Our feet are still on the ground.
The attitude of this film takes a very weird stance: does it try to mock the romcom or demonize the very tropes of it? In theory this could’ve worked. Look at Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or They Came Together, which subvert the recipe of romcoms by exaggerating the silliness of the tropes to the max. Yet, Isn’t it Romantic fails in defining its main goal. By exaggerating the romcom, they end up leaning too far back into the romcom tropes and offer nothing in exchange. The film tries so hard to rely on going back and forth between the boundary of cringey and charming, which is a very difficult trick and can only be done right if a filmmaker knows what they are doing. In the end, the film just stays in the middle, leaving us forced to taste both cringe worthiness and a lack of charm. Emily Nussbaum says it exactly right: Isn’t it Romantic is strange in its in breaking down of the bizarreness of the romcom.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing new in Isn’t it Romantic. Its hyperbole doesn’t make enough of a case for us to fall in love with the characters and the story. The cynical approach to the genre is supposed to elevate the film and embrace the stereotypes. But at the end of it, the happy ending doesn’t make sense, even in the vocabulary of the romcom.