It’s all too easy in our self-aware, postmodern age to be cynical about love, true love, and specifically its cinematic purveyor of choice, romantic comedies.
After all, they’re an easy target – full of cliches, well-worn tropes, generalised characters formed by questionable life choices, odd best friends happy to subvert their life for the sake of those nearest and dearest to them, and the distinctly out-of-style idea that there still remains a happily ever after.
But writing a clever, witty, insightful film that both acknowledges and somehow manages to transcend all this cynicism, endless catalogue of genre sins and yet somehow celebrate love in all its rom-com cheesy glory?
Ah, that is hard, very hard, and yet Isn’t It Romantic, starring Australia’s Rebel Wilson as Natalie, a successful architect riven by childhood-infused low self-esteem working in New York City, somehow makes it look, well, easy.
In fact, so elegantly clever, funny and downright sugar-candy colourful is this welcome new fresh addition (yes, there is such a thing as it turns out) to the rom-com genre, that you could be forgiven for thinking that Nora Ephron was writing and directing from beyond the grave, with one delightfully-critical eye for the move form of which she was the undisputed queen for quite some time.
“Critical” is the key word here.
For while the film is indisputably a romantic comedy in which love triumphs just as we expect it to, its road to the almost-illegal-not-to-have-it happy ending is an unorthodox one (for the genre at least; for our cynical age, it’s pretty much damn well on point).
Crucially, its heroine, usually a person of suspect choices and motivation who exists it seems much of the time simply to fall headlong into a man’s arms, is forthright and clever, willing to challenge all kinds of assumptions and falsehoods, even when they have manifested round her like some sort of Hallmark movie on acid.
Sure she has major issues with how loveable and worthy of affection she is, a trenchant self-belief system instilled in her way back in early ’90s Australia when her darkly-unhappy mother, played by Jennifer Saunders (sporting the kind of Aussie accent only forgivable because she is a comedy great and thus can do wrong), warned her, while the two were watching Pretty Woman, that no one writes movies for their kind of people.
So sure is she of their utter unlovability that she wisecracks that if they were foolish enough to make a romantic comedy about people like them, that it would be so depressing that they would need to “sprinkle Prozac on the popcorn.”
Young, impressionable Natalie internalises all this negative self-talk, carrying it into an adulthood where she is a successful architect who somehow allows herself to be used as the office garbage clearer, 3D-printer repairer and collector of coffees for arrogantly-rich clients such as Blake (Liam Hemsworth), her only solace being her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin), who spends her days watching, yep you got it, romantic comedies (even friendship-wise, Natalie is a pushover) and her office bestie, Josh (Adam DeVine) who, naturally, is secretly in love with her. (Pssst! No spoiler here – she’s also in love with him. Tell no one until later in the film.)
So sure is she of her unattractiveness to the all men everywhere, and yes this means missing a communications network worth of romantic signals from poor old Josh, that she engages in a three-hour takedown of romantic comedies with Whitney one day, laying waste to the idea that this genre has anything to offer people like her, or anyone at all really.
In clinically-humourous fashion, she critiques how the only two women in an office are always mortal enemies, that the big realisation that the couple of the hour are meant to be together always involves lots of running, that the “meet cutes” seem contrived and forced, that the gay best friend is always ridiculously over-the-top … and on and on and on, each of her points quite valid in a way since rom-coms are not known for anything approach real life-like authenticity, but ultimately fuelled by a prevailing sense that love is not meant for the likes of her.
It’s this lack of self-love and self-belief that gives the bulk of the film, which takes place in a hyper-real rom-com world so colourful, relentlessly upbeat and colourfully and emotionally-perfect that you can understand why Natalie is bewildered by it, real substance and emotional heft even in the middle of constant quips about how hilariously unrealistic it all is.
What makes this parody of romantic comedies work so brilliantly well is that even in the middle of making fun of all kinds of stock-in-trade conventions, there lies a beating heart of longing so strong that you know that all Natalie really wants is to be told she’s loved and lovely.
Even as she eye rolls at every “meet cute” that plays out in front of her, struggles to deal with her grotty old New York street being transformed into the home of bridal shops and cutesy cupcake shops, and tries to play the romantic game so she can escape what tells everyone is a hellish landscape of love, acceptance and heart-shaped maps of Mahattan (even the birds fly in that cupid-like formation) , there’s a sneaking sense that Natalie actually wants the kind of happiness she sees everyone else enjoying.
Only, and it is a credit to the writing which is strong, feminist and independence-affirming, she doesn’t want it on these terms, and her eventual happy ending comes not with the promise of salvation at the hands of her partner but the very strong sense that she is worthy of being treated well, of valuing herself and of finding love that recognises her worth.
The impressive part of Isn’t it Romantic, apart from its consistently-funny, brilliantly-clever balancing of parody and heartfelt emotions, is that it doesn’t take the easy route out.
Natalie doesn’t give up everything she believes in to find love, save for the sense that she is worth nothing and thus not worth standing up for, either by herself or by others, and when love finally arrives, and it does in a pretty gorgeous scene that’s sweet and funny all in one, it’s on her terms and faithful to what we have seen of her character to that point.
All of which means that as well as being laugh out loud funny (aided by Wilson’s ferociously-good comic timing which manages to be touching at the same time) and full of tremendously-clever and insightful world-building, Isn’t it Romantic is a film which doesn’t sell the message that you have to give up who you are in order to find love.
If all Natalie had done was give up her lack of self-esteem for finding worth in the eyes and arms of a man, what would she have actually gained? Not much at all, really, and we would have felt justly cheated as an audience.
Instead, she goes on a real, transformative journey that, glory be, manages not to be cloying or cheesily over-emotive, but which is meaningful, funny and ultimately reasonably profound, which is not a word you hear bandied about in rom-com circles all that often, and which gives this most delightful and heartwarming of films a reassuring substance to go along with all the parodying froth and bubble.