Isn't It Romantic
Rebel Wilson is a curious screen phenomenon. Large, Aussie, vulgar and forthright, she deflates every idealistic sentiment in her vicinity with somewhat less than witty retorts like “That’s dumb” and “Love is shit”. So far in her films, she has been given little (shall we say) characterological bandwidth in which to grow or develop as a persona; there’s not much space between comedy and drama for her to work with. Her roles, as written, often have a clearly hard time manoeuvring her into a true-love-conquers-all conclusion; even the otherwise excellent comedy Bridesmaids (2011) gives evidence of that. Isn’t It Romantic (it’s the movie that omits the question mark at the end, not me), touted as Wilson’s “first solo lead role”, contrives a laborious meta-film conceit to take Rebel all the way from disenchantment to re-enchantment.
The only time Wilson breaks out of her general movie-given arc on screen – and these opportunities are precious – is when the film in question flips into exuberant singing-and-dancing sequences (where she can show off her best talents), of which Isn’t It Romantic has exactly two. It has been that way for Wilson ever since her success in the Pitch Perfect film series (2012-2017) – where, take note, she at first played a late-teenager, even though in reality she was already well into her 30s.
Finding the pretexts for such sequences is the big challenge facing contemporary Hollywood musical comedies. The number, it seems, has to be either semi-credibly performance-based – putting on a show as in the Pitch Perfect films or TV’s Glee (2009-2015), rocking a karaoke night with friends – or a fantasy excursion (dream sequence, hallucination, reverie, etc). It can’t just be, outrightly, a full-blooded, irreal musical. This, too, ends up being a constriction on Wilson’s development as a performer and a personality.
Isn’t It Romantic starts in – where else? – Australia, as little Natalie learns from her hardbitten Mum not to fall for that romantic Pretty Woman/knightly male saviour crap. Then, in the blink of an ellipse, she’s all grown up and trying to make her way in a New York architectural firm (her geographical move making no sense beyond the fact that it mirrors Wilson’s own relocation within Planet Showbiz, Crocodile Dundee-style). In the office – after the now obligatory comic-underlining of gendered disparities and daily humiliations – we are introduced to Natalie’s rom-com-obsessed assistant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin from TV’s GLOW), and a gormless guy, Josh (Adam DeVine), who likes Natalie in a romantically-hopeful way, but is often thoughtlessly rejected by her.
Swinging into the post-exposition “knock on the head” device – wielded much more craftily in Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein’s I Feel Pretty (2018), the most obvious immediate predecessor to this film – Natalie enters the unreal world of a generic romantic comedy (the standard elements of which have been heavy-handedly laid out for us, at length, in previous Natalie/Whitney dialogue – as if some spectators likely to be lost without such a tip-sheet really exist in the target audience). This is a “metaleptic” premise copying I Feel Pretty on the level of the heroine suddenly being beautiful and adorable to all she meets, but actually wavering off-track fairly quickly into the fuzzier, make-‘em-up-as-you-go rules of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), one of the first American films to popularise such conceptual conceits. (Brian Henderson diagnosed this level of Allen’s movie well in his Film Quarterly review of 1986).
On its semantic switchboard, Isn’t It Romantic then spends most of its time sorting out the mismatched pairs of Natalie & Josh, and Blake (Liam Hemsworth, another Aussie) & Isabella (Indian star Priyanka Chopra). That’s not much of a nutcracker – indeed, one of the most strangely satisfying moments of plainspeaking in the film comes when Natalie, standing as part of this foursome, eyeballs everyone and drawls: “Hey, maybe we should just swap partners”. But the film, alas, cannot end right there. It gets itself into an awkward dance: trying to “do” rom-com while simultaneously satirising its moves. But that necessarily means satirising its character-types (such as best friend, etc); and director Todd Strauss-Schulson, with his three scriptwriters, seems to be holding out for some vital, working distinction between the individual characters and the types they incarnate. But nothing can, for instance, save the figure of Josh from being a plain, one-dimensional bore.
Back to the metalepsis: Natalie figures she’s going to have to get to the end of the sappy, affirming-love story in order to exit from it. (She also realises – it’s a gag repeated into the ground – that in this sanitised “PG world” she’s not going to get any sex-action, although off-screen she somehow “sneaks a peek” at Blake’s junk.) But getting it on with Blake achieves nothing – in fact, later, in a clumsy POV switch, she will realise that he’s just the same old patriarchal louse as he was in the initial reality, stealing her architectural ideas – and even busting in on the wedding of Josh with Isabella doesn’t resolve the problem. Ah yes, she’s got to learn to love herself – this, after her gay mate, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones), has just spelt it out for her in the previous scene.
This loving-oneself business – apart from being ubiquitous in post-“The Greatest Love of All” pop culture! – is also a nod to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019), the other key intertext at work in Isn’t It Romantic (the karaoke trigger arises in both, for example). Just as that series sidestepped all possible romantic-coupling destinies (including the queer one it had been hinting at all along) in its final episode, in order to affirm radical self-esteem, Isn’t It Romantic frantically juggles its balls in the air to declare that, back in World One, Natalie will more or less magically win everything she wants, after all, if only she can value herself. This leads to a final cap-off in which Whitney observes that, in a real sense, Natalie does live out a romantic comedy – to which the heroine replies that, if that were the case, she would surely, at this point, burst into song and dance … and then Madonna’s “Express Yourself” is performed with zest by the entire cast out on the New York street.
This is rather like the odd meta-twist that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend took at the very last, with Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) being exhorted by Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) to turn away from the dreams of romance and write those songs that are “in her head” all the time whenever she gazed off dreamily – even though very many of the songs across the show’s four seasons didn’t happen in her head at all (or even included her!). At that moment, a great series pulled back from something truly avant-garde and Utopian. Similarly, Isn’t It Romantic’s fantasy coda can only happen at the very edge of the story, as the credits are about to roll and the representational layer is thinner than ever, evaporating as the punters march out (of the theatre) or switch off (their TV sets or computers). These glimmers of good things vanish too quickly …
MORE Strauss-Schulson: The Final Girls
© Adrian Martin 25 May 2019