ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (2019) – Review
“Hello, film lovers, where ever you are…” (with apologies and props to Rogers and Hammerstein). Yes, it’s that holiday, once again, so are the Hollywood studios offering any sort of “movie nightcap” to that special, intimate evening? Well, the flick opening today does have romance (well, a variation) in the title. But look at the lead actress. She’s perhaps best known for raunchy comedies, more “raw-coms” than “rom-coms”. That should clue you in that this flick offers a much sharper take (razor-sharp at times) on the now familiar “kisses and chuckles” feature. This gives several interpretations to the question posed by the Valentine’s Day release, ISN’T IT ROMANTIC. Oh, and don’t try and sneak in any heart-shaped boxes of candy into the multiplex, okay?
The story begins a couple of decades ago, as the camera gives us a full close-up of adorable nine-year-old Natalie, with an expression of pure bliss as she watches (probably not her first viewing) the 1990 classic PRETTY WOMAN. Of course, her weary, life-battered Mum (Jennifer Saunders) walks in to burst her baby’s bubble, warning her that life is very much not like these types of bubbly flicks. Cut to today, NYC, as now thirty-something Natalie (Rebel Wilson) wakes up in her dingy, tiny apartment. After saying hi to her surly unfriendly neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones), she heads to her architect job at a messy, crowded downtown design firm. No one respects her except her frowsy aide Whitney (Betty Gilpin), who spends much of her days streaming, you guessed it, “rom-coms” on her computer screen, and best “work pal”, the ever-encouraging and jovial Josh (Adam Devine). Later that day, a subway altercation KO’s Natalie. When she wakes up in a very comfy hospital bed, it seems like everything’s changed (maybe better, definitely weirder). As she walks out into the now immaculate streets, she has a “meet cute” with an instantly-smitten Aussie billionaire named Blake (Liam Hemsworth). After taking her home in his limo (and giving his “digits”), Natalie is stunned by her now lush and luxurious apartment, with a fully stocked (all those shoes) walk-in closet. And (certainly “out of the closet”) waiting for her (he’s got a key, natch’) is her “BFF” Donny, now friendly and extremely flamboyant, devoted to her alone (does he have a job or an outside life). Things are certainly different at her now plush, upper-crust design office. Oh, but now Whitney is a super-competitive, rhymes-with-witchy rival. Luckily Josh is still the same supportive pal. Ah, but he’s not immune to this “turn of events”, as he starts a fast “meet cute” turned romance with the gorgeous “yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra). Natalie realizes that she’s in an artificial world based on “rom-com” cliches. Is she forever “trapped” or will she find a way to return to her “real world” before losing Josh forever?
In a role quite different from her usual “party hard” twirling dervish, Wilson makes a solid cynical leading lady, calling out the genre tropes and cliches. Though she’s treated as a “beguiling” (Blake’s go-to phrase) queen, she knows that she must get back to our ole’ cruel world and makes us root for her to complete her “quest”. Plus Wilson uses her slapstick gifts to great effect in several physical gags (stopping a careening kabob cart) and a couple of musical numbers (hey there Amy). Speaking of music, she teams up once more with her PITCH PERFECT partner Devine for scenes that bristle with true chemistry (a real bit of movie “shorthand”). Luckily Devine has toned down the aggressive energy that has made many of his film roles a tad abrasive. This “mellow” almost verges on the cloying, coming off as a needy puppy in the early scenes, but he bounces back when he finds this “new NY” more appealing. Hemsworth has a winsome, goofy vibe as the fantasy “prince of the city”, yearning to take Natalie away in his carriage..er..stretch limo. Chopra is charming as the fantasy femme whose claws come out as she realizes the strong bond between the “normal” duo. Happily, the film has a couple of terrific supporting players who become the story’s true MVPs. Straight from the wrestling ring of the Netlix sitcom “Glow” comes Gilpin, showcasing her versatility in two distinct versions of Whitney. Whit 1.0 is a frizzy, mosey mess, who has been suckered in by movie fibs and spouts silly platitudes to “help” Natalie (“The right man will see your inner light”). Even more fun is Whit 2.0, a crimson-haired barracuda turning the air toxic with her withering glares and savage slams (“I’m taking you down!!”). Oh, but that “f-word” truly describes the “go-for-broke” work of Jones as the (another “f-word”) fabulous Donny, bouncing from every corner of the screen like a martini-swilling Tigger, only slowing down to deliver just the right “pep talk” to his fave “grrrlll”. He’s a real-life cartoon, in the best sense of the word.
There are a lot of truly inspired comic gems and “call-backs” in the witty, satirical script from Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman. I was particularly amused when, in the new “world”, Natalie tries to drop the “f-bomb”, but is constantly drowned out by ambient noise (car horns, alarm clocks, etc.), thus ensuring the coveted(for this genre) PG-13 rating. And the visual bits are executed by the film’s top-notch art directors and production designers. The “RC” NYC is a place of clean streets with adorable lil’ shops for cupcakes, kids books, and bridal gowns (as opposed to the grimy 99 cent stores, bodegas, and check cashing places in the opening), subway stops adorned with potted bouquets, and pristine pedestrians wearing warm pastels and flowery prints. And, of course, no traffic jams (there’s never a car anywhere near Blake’s limo as he zips over the bridge). On the other hand, pointing out the ridiculous nature of rom-coms may be the parody equivalent of “shooting fish in a barrell”, making the film’s main premise seem “stretched” to the breaking, or boring, point. Like last year’s THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (this new flick is vastly superior, though), we wonder if this might have worked much better as a short subject, or on TV as a comedy special or a bonus-length SNL sketch. It doesn’t help that the direction from Todd Strauss-Schulson is often listless, with lots of “wheel-spinning” (the repeated “morning after” gets tedious fast) between some peppy set pieces (the karaoke number, in particular). The whole enterprise derails in the story’s big finale as they suddenly embrace the cliches they spend the previous hour or so bashing with a Mad magazine-filled sledgehammer (how I wished a person from HR would break up a big office reveal). C’mon ISN’T IT ROMANTIC, you can’t have it both ways, or as those films would show, somebody (a guy named Baxter) has to be left at the altar. Darn, this one had a premise with some promise.
2.5 Out of 5