The comic actress Rebel Wilson makes any movie better—and frequently steals the show. She did it in “Pitch Perfect,” among many other films in which she plays the second lead, with a combination of oddball line readings, out-of-left-field reactions and inspired slapstick.
Finally, we can celebrate her elevation to the star (and co-producer) of “Isn’t It Romantic,” a visually and verbally ingenious sendup of romantic comedies that wears its candy heart on its sleeve.
Wilson plays Natalie, an entry-level architect with low self-esteem at a New York firm where everyone takes advantage of her. Natalie expects nothing from life, and that’s what she gets. Then, after a mugger attacks her in the subway and she bangs her head on a steel beam, Natalie wakes up in an alternate universe. Suddenly, she’s the lucky—and literal—star of her own rom-com. But rather than take delight in this new world, she feels instantly trapped.
If, in your jaded heart, you loathe romantic comedies, you’ll get scant satisfaction from this one. Yes, its satire has a bit of an edge, but even that edge is too good-natured for true cynics. If, however, you have a soft spot for the genre—and, aw, we won’t tell—“Isn’t It Romantic” delivers the goods, on multiple levels.
The movie gives its audience credit as it dissects the cliches of the genre. Indeed, there are so many “Easter eggs,” visual and aural, embedded in the film that part of the fun is identifying the homages to rom-coms past: Look, there’s “Pretty Woman.” That’s from “Groundhog Day.” There go “Miss Congeniality” and “La La Land.”
And so on.
But beyond simply referencing other films, the screenplay (by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman) is a sendup of the rom-com culture. Finding true love in a meet-cute, kissing in the rain, celebrating your happily-ever-after with a perfectly choreographed production number—all these tropes receive sharp pokes in the rib.
When Natalie wakes up from her head-bop, she finds herself dressed in the height of fashion; her scruffy Queens neighborhood having become fresh-smelling and pretty; and her tiny apartment now huge and fabulous. Men suddenly fawn over her, and one billionaire (Liam Hemsworth), a client who insulted her at a work presentation, now worships her—to a nauseating degree. Worse, her timid work pal (Betty Gilpin), a rom-com true believer, has become a Mean Girl.
Even Natalie’s unfriendly next-door neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones) has morphed into a gay bestie, another rom-com trope. The only person Natalie can talk to is a co-worker, Josh, played by Adam Devine, Wilson’s romantic foil in the “Pitch Perfect” movies. Josh, of course, worships her, though she’s, um clueless.
Trapped in a PG-13 world, Natalie can’t even swear properly; random noises bleep out her strongest curses.
Wilson heads up a strong cast, but it is director Todd Strauss-Schulson—whose 2015 comedy “The Final Girls” made such excellent fun of 1980s slasher flicks—lights the way with a deft satiric touch, balancing humor and heart. Even the potentially gag-worthy moral of the story—love yourself—goes down like a lump of sugar, with a just a splash of bitters.