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Non-Review Review: Isn’t It Romantic?

Isn’t It Romantic? is a movie that seriously misjudges its own premise.

At the heart of Isn’t It Romantic? is a fairly solid observation. The conventional romantic comedy has seen better days. The genre enjoyed a boom in the nineties, largely driven by the star power and charisma of actors like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. It is no surprise that Isn’t It Romantic? opens with the familiar chords of Roy Orbinson’s Pretty Woman and then cuts to a childhood memory of the lead character watching Pretty Woman. In recent years, the genre has gradually been squeezed out of cinemas. It is no longer the cultural force that it once was, with a handful of notable exceptions. Isn’t It Romantic? positions itself as part of a larger discussion about the state of the genre.

He will, in fact, take you to the candy shop.

However, Isn’t It Romantic? approaches this issue in a very strange way. Typically, genres that have been marginalised or pushed to the fringes respond with a level of introspection and analysis; think of Unforgiven with westerns or even Cabin in the Woods with schlocky teen horrors. The idea is that the genre can take itself apart and put itself back together. On the surface, Isn’t It Romantic? seems to be positioning itself as this sort of movie. Indeed, a significant portion of the movie’s stretch of set-up is given over to an extended sequence of the lead character working through the tropes and rhythms of, and the problems with, the romantic comedy genre in almost excruciating detail. Isn’t It Romantic? seems to position itself as an autopsy.

However, it very quickly becomes clear that beyond pointing out these tropes, Isn’t It Romantic? has very little interesting to actually say about them. If the film genuinely believes that the genre is dead, then Isn’t It Romantic? opens as a public autopsy before morphing into a strange act of cinematic necrophilia.

The best laid plans.

To be clear, it is worth interrogating the starting position of Isn’t It Romantic?, as outlined in the opening fifteen minutes or so. Most obviously, there’s a question of whether there are any serious problems with the romantic comedy as a genre. As with any other genre, it’s possible to construct a compelling argument for either side of the debate. Sure, romantic comedies romanticise stalking, galmourise obsession, and create unrealistic expectations of both courtship and relationships. They treat toxic behaviour as amusing, and typically reinforces unfortunate gender roles and clichés. Many of these arguments are advanced in the opening act of Isn’t It Romantic?, suggesting a canny understanding of the genre mechanics.

Of course, the other side of that debate is that so many other genres are also rife with similar problems. Superhero movies are power fantasies, often coded in masculine terms. Westerns are often colonial in nature. Action movies bring their own barrel of issues. Cabin in the Woods walks through a lot of the unfortunate undertones of horror. It seems unreasonable to single out romantic comedies for criticism. More than that, there is something to be said for the joy of escapism, to understand those issues and enjoy the trappings of a romantic comedy anyway. Romantic comedies sell a fantasy, like any other story. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that, and other genres in similar positions have rarely had to account for themselves in similar terms.

This comes back to the central challenge of Isn’t It Romantic? The film seems structured in such a way as to make an argument or a justification for romantic comedies by wrapping a self-aware framing device around the outside of the film. This allows the film to indulge in the tropes of the romantic comedy, perhaps because it believes that modern audiences are too cynical to get on board with the concept. However, it is not necessary to deconstruct the romantic comedy or subject it to self-aware analysis in order to execute the familiar tropes. After all, the past year demonstrated that fairly conventional romantic comedies could thrive with a little modernisation; Crazy Rich Asians in cinemas, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up on Netflix.

This is the central paradox of Isn’t It Romantic? the film seems predicated on the redundancy of the old-fashioned romantic comedy, when that redundancy isn’t entirely the case. Sure, romantic comedies are not the dominant cultural force that they once were, but they can exist and thrive in the current market if they are good enough. As a result, the film’s framing device becomes particularly pointed. Why does the audience need to believe that Natalie could find herself in a romantic comedy? The framing device, the wry “aren’t romantic comedies terrible?” exposition in the opening act, and the concept all suggest a defensiveness on the part of the film that is largely unearned.

“I’m sorry, doctor. When I saw you, my heart skipped a beat.”

More than that, though, the insistence on making Isn’t It Romantic? a movie about romantic comedies rather than simple a romantic comedy adds a layer of meta-text that the film is completely unable to support. The opening fifteen minutes of Isn’t It Romantic? spend so much time talking about romantic comedies that the audience expects Isn’t It Romantic? to say something about romantic comedies. Maybe it can offer some damning criticism. Maybe it can pick them apart. Maybe it can offer a convincing argument for their merits. The movie’s premise promises all of these things, and then delivers on absolutely none of them, leading to a truly frustrating and shallow experience.

Instead, the meta-textual elements of Isn’t It Romantic? do not serve as a device to explore the genre, but as a delivery mechanism for a series of FamilyGuy-style riffs on pop culture. The jokes are mostly broad and mostly familiar. There are couple that really land, mostly playing on the strange PG-13 nature of classic romantic comedies. Natalie’s efforts to swear are an old joke, most effectively recently employed on The Good Place, but they work well enough. There’s a delightfully gonzo riff on the classic Groundhog Day or Russian Doll or Edge of Tomorrow template that has Natalie repeatedly trying to have sex with her insanely attractive co-star, only to find that their passionate love-making has been lost in the edit.

Devine comedy.

(It’s a good joke, and good enough to obscure the wonkiness of the film’s conceit; if Natalie is trapped in a romantic comedy, how does she perceive time? Early in the film, she seems jarred by scene transitions. However, later on she skips a dressing-up montage and insists that she spent five-hours off-camera picking an outfit. Isn’t It Romantic? is never entirely clear on whether Natalie is experiencing the romantic comedy as an outside observer like the audience, or if she is occupying a real and tangible world. It seems to alternate as the plot – and the gags – demand. It is not an issue of itself, but it speaks to how haphazardly Isn’t It Romantic? has been constructed.)

More than that, Isn’t It Romantic? runs up against a lot of the problems that face nostalgic films of this type, particularly when it comes to the aspects of the romantic comedy that have aged less-than-well. Is it enough to acknowledge a problematic and offensive stereotype while playing with that problematic and offensive stereotype? Early in the film, Isn’t It Romantic? has Natalie rail against the offensively outdated “gay best friend” archetype common to the genre. Inevitably, she finds herself teamed up with such a stereotype later in the film. Natalie complains that he is “an offensive gay guy”, who is “like an alien who’s pretending to be gay” and is “setting gay rights back one hundred years.”

Rebel without a cause.

However, it feels like Isn’t It Romantic? is trying to have its cake and eat it. It feels as though the movie wants that offensive stereotype, and treats those acknowledgements as a necessary concession to modern taste rather than using that archetype to say anything interesting about larger culture or the genre in particular. Isn’t It Romantic? never asks why these films love that kind of character, or the complicated role that those types of characters played in reframing the public debate about homosexuality. Instead, that character exists as an item to be checked off a list, and acknowledging that he probably shouldn’t be on the list in the first place is the movie’s way of shrugging its shoulders and insisting that the audience cannot possibly get mad.

All of these smaller issues circle around the bigger problem at the heart of Isn’t It Romantic? Natalie starts out as a character who hates romantic comedies.  “They’ll never make a movie about girls like us,” her mother warns. “You know why? Because it would be so sad that they’d have to sprinkle prozac on the popcorn.” This is not true. Indeed, Rebel Wilson was correctly called out when she erroneously claimed to be the first plus-size lead in such a film, ignoring the work of Queen Latifah. However, surely the solution to that potential problem is simply to build a romantic comedy that could put a character like Natalie at its centre, rather than treating her inclusion as a fantasy.

Isn’t It Romantic? occasionally gestures towards acknowledging that being trapped inside a romantic comedy could be hell for a certain kind of person, maybe somebody like Natalie. Living in a world where everything (including the people) look it could could have come from a catalogue is exhausting. There is an effective early sequence where Natalie comes home to her new apartment, which has been decorated in the style of a romantic comedy. On one level, it is beautiful. On another level, every trace of Natalie’s personality has been erased and replaced with something generic and conventional. It is a nightmare, similar to the implication on The Good Place that hell probably looks something like a sitcom set.

However, Isn’t It Romantic? never develops this idea. Natalie is not horrified that her entire life has been transformed into something from The Stepford Wives. Instead, she seems mostly grumpy until she is coaxed into going along with it. She discovers a room full of shoes, and is awed. “I don’t normally wear heels because of the uneven weight distribution, but this is incredible.” When she is literally swept off her feet by a “super-hot billionaire”, she observes, “Normally, I’d call bullsh!t on this.” However, she goes along with it. There’s an uncomfortable assertion at the heart of Isn’t It Romantic? that it was never possible for Natalie to actually dislike romantic comedies or engage in good faith criticism of them. Deep down, she always wanted to be part of one.

Proving his Hemsworth.

There’s something insidious and unsettling bubbling away in that, which feels like a disingenuous effort to side-step all the frontloaded criticisms that Natalie makes the genre. None of those criticisms matter, Isn’t It Romantic? seems to argue, because Natalie is just a bitter person who is jealous that she never got to live that life. She might complain about homophobic clichés, but secretly she wants a stock gay best friend. She might argue that the materialism of such films is cynical and calculated, but really she just wants a life devoid of any real personality or unique identifiers. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the fantasy of romantic comedies, just the insistence in Isn’t It Romantic? that all criticisms of romantic comedies are rooted in bitterness.

Isn’t It Romantic? feels like an ill-judged film, and a wasted opportunity. It might be better to just watch an actual romantic comedy instead.

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