Most people who love romantic comedies still recognize that they can be hokey and slightly problematic. New York City isn’t impossibly clean, with a a gourmet cupcake boutique on every block. Rich, handsome men don’t fall out of the sky and declare you the most beguiling woman on Earth. A makeover sequence can’t solve any problem. But still… isn’t it fun to just pretend sometimes?
Isn’t It Romantic pulls off a sweet sleight-of-hand trick as a rom-com-within-a-rom-com, mocking all of the classic rom-com tropes while still letting us indulge in them. The movie is having its gourmet cupcake and eating it too.
Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, an architect living in the decidedly unglamorous real-world of New York City who’s tasked with designing a parking garage for an obnoxious wealthy hotelier (Liam Hemsworth) but is also constantly mistaken for the person who gets coffee.
Even in this unflinchingly real world, the seeds of the romantic comedy already exist: Natalie has a work best friend (Adam Devine) who’s poised to be the love that’s been in front of her the entire time and, when she bemoans her hatred of sexist rom-com tropes, Natalie gets a classic “you know what your problem is?” speech (turns out, her problem is being closed-off to love).
And then a mugging-gone-wrong leads to a bump on the head and comatose Natalie wakes up in a beautiful world where every surface has fresh flowers and every kitchen could have been designed by Nancy Meyers. The doctors are gorgeous, every meeting is a meet-cute, and the rude hotel boss is now Australian-accented and madly in love with Natalie.
Like his brother Chris’s performance in Ghostbusters, Liam Hemsworth proves he’s not afraid to find the humor in downright silliness. The entire core cast is excellent. Wilson is grounded but still delivers her one-liners with zing, Betty Gilpin as Natalie’s office friend is distinctly lovable, and Devine is the most charming he’s ever been—and I say this as a lifelong Adam Devine skeptic. Also perfectly cast: Priyanka Chopra as the gorgeous “yoga ambassador” who oscillates between benign love interest and classic mean girl.
Isn’t It Romantic is hardly the first attempt to deconstruct the beloved rom-com genre: Just two weeks ago, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did a rom-com episode that beat Isn’t It Romantic to a few of its punchlines (feel free to replace “Gratuitous Karaoke Moment” in your head with the gratuitous karaoke moment that Natalie has). It’s not new to joke about the impossibly big apartments and vague “big presentations!” of romantic comedies, nor is it new to point out the sometimes problematic sexism that can exists within the rom-com universe.
But Isn’t It Romantic is just funny—and fun!—enough to still be worthwhile. The charm exists in its perfect details: Natalie’s real world life is shot in close ups with a slightly shaking camera; her rom-com world is sweeping 360-degree shots. Street signs are written in a more pleasing font. Vanessa Carlton’s hit song “A Thousand Miles” by plays at every important moment.
The problem with making a move all about adhering to established tropes is that at a certain point, the audience catches on and gets one or two steps ahead. Perhaps that’s why director Todd Strauss-Schulson was smart enough to stick to a run-time under 90 minutes. Even if the material is pretty well-tread, this movie proves that the formula is winning for a reason. After all, everyone loves a big musical dance number.