Isn’t It Romantic? star Rebel Wilson got into some hot water when she claimed her new rom-com is the first to feature a plus-sized actress as its lead.
Queen Latifah (Just Wright, Last Holiday) and Mo’Nique (Phat Girlz) begged to differ, causing a debate over the parameters of plus-sizes that I am in no way qualified (or eager) to enter, although I can say there are things to consider in Isn’t It Romantic? besides Wilson’s figure.
In conceptual terms, the movie has more in common with Scream, in that it’s an examination of genre clichés (in this case romantic comedies) that both satirizes and embraces them. And like Scream, it’s centered on a woman who comes to understand that she’s trapped in a world ruled by narrative conventions, and must use her knowledge of them to game the situation.
Wilson is Natalie, who learns as a chubby teen, from her mother, that she can watch Julia Roberts comedies but she cannot expect to her life to yield that kind of wish-fulfillment.
Natalie grows up to be a skilled but self-doubting architect, who’s out getting coffee for colleagues when she bonks her head and wakes up in a world wherein she’s the female lead in a rom-com realm (in fact, she’s wearing Roberts’ Pretty Woman outfit).
Eighties pop tunes fill the air, cheerful dog walkers say hello, the streets are full of couples meeting cute, her apartment triples in size and morphs into a production-designed, art-directed showcase with a powder blue living room and pink bedroom, containing a dog that is suddenly groomed and obedient.
Groomed and obedient might also describe the man (Liam Hemsworth) who, on cue, is smitten with her, just as everyone in this new world is smitten with her, and eager to make her the center of their universe, including the formerly indifferent neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones) who becomes her gay best friend, on hand to provide soulful advice and support.
Wilson’s job here is to make snarky remarks at how predictable and awful this all is, which is fine insofar as it plays to Wilson’s strengths and fulfills the movie’s mission to mock the rigid contours of the romantic comedy.
But Isn’t It Romantic? falters when it drops the ironic pose and tries to conform to those contours – in her fantasy world, Natalie realizes she’s been ignoring the co-worker (Adam DeVine) who’s in love with her, and now must watch him get married to a supermodel (Priyanka Chopra), unless she can burst through the doors of the chapel at the last moment and put a stop to it.
In these moments, Isn’t it Romantic? must summon real emotion. Doing so is not as easy as making fun of corny romance, and Wilson and DeVine struggle to find chemistry.
They are not helped by the parallel mission in Isn’t in Romantic? to provide a parable of self-esteem and empowerment. This requires Natalie to downplay romance and declare that it’s enough to be “smart, kind and funny,” and two out of three ain’t bad. “Kind” is a weird claim to make when you’ve just spent that previous 90 minutes aiming withering putdowns at virtually anyone within earshot.
Incidentally, if you want to see a funny, effective love story featuring a plus sized character, try Stan & Ollie.
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. With Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, Priyanka Chopra, Brandon Scott Jones, Betty Gilpin, and Liam Hemsworth. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Parents guide: PG-13 (language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference)
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.