Not long into Isn’t It Romantic, after catching her assistant (Betty Gilpin) watching The Wedding Singer at work, the cynical yet overly deferential Natalie (Rebel Wilson) goes on a spiel about all the clichés she claims to hate about romantic comedies. Although her mother (Jennifer Saunders) told her as a child that “they’ll never make a movie about us,” the plus-size Natalie soon finds herself, much to her chagrin, in the starring role of a rom-com when, after getting knocked out, she wakes up in that distinctly fantastical version of New York City that’s served as the setting for countless staples of the genre.
Early on, Isn’t It Romantic is certainly perceptive about the rom-com clichés that Natalie rails against. The Big Apple here is a place where check-cashing stores have been replaced by flower shops, pigeons fly in heart-shaped formation over the Brooklyn Bridge, and every gorgeous man goes out of his way to tell Natalie how cute she is. From Natalie’s crummy apartment transforming into a luxurious penthouse suite, to her low-key neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones) starring as her curiously unemployed and fiercely loyal gay bestie, the film nails the small yet absurd details that have come to define the improbable alternate realities—or, as Natalie calls it, “the Matrix for lonely women”—in which virtually all modern rom-coms take place.
Unfortunately, the film too often loses sight of its irreverence as it tends to the narrative beats that power the shopworn story of a woman so lacking in confidence that she can’t see that her soulmate was right in front of her all along. As Isn’t It Romantic sputters through its second half, it delivers some clever moments, like a karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” that unexpectedly explodes into an insanely choreographed dance number, and an extended gag revolving around Natalie’s repeatedly frustrated attempts to bone a hot billionaire (Liam Hemsworth) that dings rom-coms for how they imply but never show sex. But as the film becomes increasingly reliant on predictable narrative tropes, trading its once relentless cheekiness for mawkish stabs at self-help sermonizing, it essentially evolves into the very thing it set out to parody.