Cast: Rebel Wilson, Priyanka Chopra, Adam DeVine, Liam Hemsworth
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Swimsuit model Isabella, the seductress that Priyanka Chopra plays in Isn't It Romantic?, describes herself as a yoga ambassador. What her calling actually entails is never clear and the film allows the character no chance to dwell upon the physical, mental or spiritual dimensions of the traditional discipline she claims to represent. She is instead projected as a femme fatale who crashes the fantasy world that a knock on the head transports the protagonist, Natalie (Rebel Wilson), into. At the end of her tether, the latter snaps at Isabella, who has effortlessly weaned away the man the heroine is secretly fond of: "Ambassador is for a country, not for stretching."
The point is well taken, but Isn't It Romantic?, streaming internationally on Netflix, is, at full stretch, a likeable enough take-off that banks upon a mix of deprecation and earnestness in taking potshots at the conventions of the romantic comedy, a Hollywood genre with its own established, much-loved canon.
For one, the Isn't It Romantic? heroine is the antithesis of the 'pretty girl' stereotype embodied by the likes of Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Drew Barrymore, Kate Hudson and Reese Witherspoon (Julia and Drew even pop up in the film via old rom-com footage). Played by the effervescent Rebel Wilson, Natalie is told that she is "built like a cement truck", but that isn't the only reason why she despises rom-coms.
Her distaste for the genre has its roots in the early 1990s in Australia, where, in the opening scene, a pre-teen Natalie is engrossed in Pretty Woman. Her mother (Jennifer Saunders) barges into the room and reminds the girl that there are no happy-ever-after endings in real life for women like her. Not only does mommy dearest rub in the fact that "it's just a movie", she also tells Natalie that Julia Roberts has "a million-dollar smile" and "a gorgeous mane of hair". Made conscious that she is blessed with neither, the girl grows up hating trite, woolly-headed love stories perpetuated by the Hollywood dream machine.
Twenty-five years on, Natalie is in New York, working as an architect in a firm where her sense of self-worth is constantly undermined. She has only two friends in the office, her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) and a nerdy project manager, Josh (Adam Devine). In one sequence, she launches into a full-blown tirade against rom-coms when she catches Whitney watching The Wedding Singer and loving it. "Rom-coms are toxic," Natalie asserts. She dismisses another rom-com as "a masterpiece of shit".
On the way back home, Natalie is waylaid by a mugger. She saves herself and her bag and immobilizes the man. But in trying to flee the scene, she hits a pole and is knocked out cold. The 'damage' catapults her into 'some kind of parallel universe' - "a Matrix for lonely women" - in which her life begins to pan out like a romantic comedy. New York smells like lavender, her messy pad turns into a spacious, swanky apartment, her lazybones pet perks up, she becomes the owner of a wide array of lovely, perfectly fitting shoes, and even the limo that nearly hits her belongs to the charming billionaire Blake (Liam Hemsworth), the man who has commissioned the firm she works for to design and build his next hotel. Life promises to be a bed of roses from here on, but the lady is so desperate to return to the real world that she goes looking for another mishap to shake her out of the reverie.
In the process of critiquing the norms of the genre, Isn't It Romantic? goes beyond them and builds upon time-honoured devices to deliver a wild, wacky, if somewhat erratic, ride that is fun for the most part. It takes a bite off all the elements that are cracked up to be essential to a rom-com and then some - a filthy rich man to die for, a flamboyant gay friend, a phone number written on flower petals, a passionate kiss in the rain, a grand wedding and a final elaborate dance number that blows the blues away - and then rolls them into a diverting concoction that Rebel Wilson revels in with the support of a cast of actors who play along with enthusiasm.
In the end, the film does not boil down merely to the story of a lonely girl who is looking for a man who could spice up her life. It is more about a girl learning to love herself. "I complete me," Natalie says at one point. At another, she declares: "I love me." She assures herself that "I'm smart and kind and funny". This isn't the kind of love that romantic comedies are erected around.
Natalie's path is inevitably strewn with obstructions, and these are sometimes expressed in strictly physical terms. Apart from being hit on the head and being nearly being run over by a limo, Natalie not only trips many a times as she lurches from one compliment to the next in "the dumb perfect world" she finds herself in, she also drives a car smack into a wall.
She tries to snap out of the world that she is trapped in, where Josh, who she loves and wants to get back with, is on the verge of marrying Isabella, the model on the billboard just outside his office; her best pal Whitney has turned into a mortal enemy and sworn competitor; and her sullen neighbour Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) mutates miraculously into a swashbuckling gay man about town.
Nothing so dramatic happens with the 88-minute film, scripted by three women (Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman). It flows at an even pace, so don't expect it to blow you away. But with Rebel Wilson hitting the right notes, nowhere more so than in the lively 'I want to dance with somebody who loves me' duel with Priyanka Chopra (this is one of the high points of the film), Isn't It Romantic? is a feel-good satire.