Romantic comedies are easy targets for parody. They tend to be cloyingly sincere, trafficking in a specific brand of wish-fulfillment fantasy that sets unrealistic expectations and employs cliché, often in the service of some hopelessly retrograde gender politics.
The makers of the charming comedy "Isn't It Romantic" know this, and come fully prepared for a bit of audience skepticism. The film pokes a bit of gentle fun at rom-coms while also functioning as an entirely earnest example of the genre it's sending up. Which makes it perfect for viewers who have a love-hate relationship with those type of movies.
Rebel Wilson stars as Natalie, a junior architect at a New York City firm. She's talented, but her lack self-esteem has her career stagnating and has left her little time for a personal life. Then she accidentally bonks her head during a subway mugging and wakes up in a glossy alternate-reality New York straight out of the romance movies she's long rolled her eyes at.
Production designer Sharon Seymour has a lot of fun with the transformation of Natalie's world, where the city streets consist of nothing but wedding dress shops, cupcake bakeries, and indie bookstores, with colorful bouquets of flowers lining the streets at random. Characters live in spacious, impeccably decorated apartments and work in wide-open, marble-floored office buildings.
Natalie suddenly finds herself romancing a hunky Australian businessman (Liam Hemsworth) and her next door neighbor (a very funny Brandon Scott Jones) has become her fabulous gay best friend, dedicating himself solely to supporting Natalie in her pursuit of happiness. Meanwhile, her work friend Whitney (Betty Gilpin is suddenly a glowering, stiletto-sporting rival (because it's an unspoken rule of romantic comedies that women in professional settings have to be in competition with one another). Then there's her fellow co-worker Josh (Adam DeVine), who Natalie's always thought of as just an office buddy, but might be her perfect match.
The traditional romantic comedy has fallen out of fashion in recent years (though Netflix has been doing its part to bring it back), meaning that director Todd Strauss-Schulson is left to poke fun at a number of tropes and references that sometimes feel dated. Just about every reference -- the film pulls in everything from "When Harry Met Sally" to "She's All That" -- is from the 80's and 90's. The script could have been sharper, but writers Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox ("How to Be Single"), and Katie Silberman ("Set It Up") have a clear affection for the genre.
Walking that tightrope is already in Strauss-Schulson's wheelhouse. His last film, the meta horror-comedy "The Final Girls," took aim at 80's slasher films to great effect. He seems to be working his way through the genres, and based on the results thus far, I'm more than happy to see him continue.
Rebel Wilson's characteristic blend of sweetness and cynicism makes her the ideal comedic presence to anchor the film. Led by her charming performance, "Isn't It Romantic" both mocks and embraces its romantic comedy trappings, which admittedly feels a bit like the film having its cake and eating it too. But in this case, that just means there's more sweet confections for everyone to enjoy.