There are two New York Cities, the real one and the moviefied one, and you might need to love both at least a little to fall for Todd Strauss-Schulson’s goofy-delightful Isn’t It Romantic. The movie opens and closes in a version of the real New York, a stinky, noisy collage of 99-cent stores and food carts adorned with jaunty photos telling you what a falafel looks like, of people walking every which-way, locked away in their own private earbud worlds. This New York is a place where it sometimes seems impossible to fall in love. But ah! The New York in the middle section is a fantasyland of dainty cupcake stores and brick townhouses half-obscured by lilacs crawling toward the sky. In the subway, the ubiquitous “If you see something, say something” poster has been replaced with one advocating friendly, flirty interhuman contact: “If you see someone, say something.” This is surely the place where love is meant to happen.
And maybe that’s where it’s supposed to happen for Natalie (Rebel Wilson), a junior architect toiling away at a firm that doesn’t appreciate her, a woman who, as a child enthralled by romantic reveries like Pretty Woman, was told by her mother that those kind of romantic dreams don’t come true for women like them. (Mom is played, as a frizzle-haired working-class straight-talker, by Jennifer Saunders, of Absolutely Fabulous.)
Natalie’s mother is right, in the sense that no one’s life can possibly play out as Julia Roberts’s does in Pretty Woman. But Isn’t It Romantic—note the telling, matter-of-fact absence of the question mark—meets in the halfway spot between realistic expectations and the sweet surprises life sometimes tosses our way. The picture is honest about human hopes and disappointments, even as it acknowledges—and offers—the pleasures of a good romantic comedy. Sometimes we may feel a little stupid for buying into, even just a little bit, the dreams they put onscreen for us. But who gets through life, or love, without ever feeling stupid? Isn’t It Romantic—written by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman, from a story by Cardillo—is, among other things, a riff on the fallacy of the guilty pleasure. There’s little enough pleasure in life; we have a right to enjoy anything that brings it our way, without apology.
Wilson, confident and vibrant, is a terrific romantic-comedy hero: While Natalie suffers from a few garden-variety insecurities, she’s not cutting herself down every second. (The movie doesn’t rely on a litany of those self-pitying “Look at how awkward and unattractive I am!” gags—alleged teaching moments that I’ve always found to be more anti-woman than they are bolstering.) Natalie is high enough on the career ladder to have her own assistant, Whitney (the marvelous Betty Gilpin), who spends most of the workday streaming, and swooning over, 1980s- and ‘90s-era romantic comedies. Natalie, all business, lectures her not for watching movies on the job but for buying into the unfulfillable fantasies they present. (It’s clear she has watched them all, repeatedly.) Then, after fending off an old-school New York purse snatcher, Natalie slams into a subway station support beam—and wakes up in her own version of the very comedies she’d been deriding earlier that day.
In addition to the aforementioned cupcake stores and townhouses, this dream world packs in every imaginable romantic-comedy cliché, including the sexy, successful businessman suitor (Liam Hemsworth), the dazzling, supermodel-caliber romantic rival (Priyanka Chopra), the ostentatiously gay and seemingly jobless BFF neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones) and the cute coworker in the stripey polo shirt that she’s never really taken seriously before (Adam Devine). The gimmick, a lovely one, is that Wilson’s Natalie isn’t happy in this aggressively fake world: The gay BFF is so flamboyantly over-the-top that, she says, he’s “setting gay rights back, like, 100 years.” Every time she tries to swear, the offending word is bleeped out by the convenient sound of an alarm clock going off or a truck backing up. She can’t even have sex with the hot businessman suitor—every time she tries to get it on with him, the camera drifts toward the curtains billowing at the window, a handy placeholder for everything that can’t be shown in a PG-13 movie.
But even if Natalie mocks her false surroundings mercilessly, and delightfully, she can’t fully resist their allure. There’s singing and dancing and, ultimately, the best kind of falling in love. The movie may wrap up its big lesson with a bow—but it’s a small bow, and the moment passes quickly. And the story does subject Wilson to a few comically exaggerated pratfalls—a riff on the old “woman breaks heel off shoe, falls down” trope—but she carries them off gracefully. Isn’t It Romantic is also smart enough to show, at the end, how the two New Yorks often blur. In this case, they come together in a flash-mob dance sequence on the street in front of the real, and truly grand, Grand Central Station. It’s ridiculous, and it’s wonderful. Falling in love is stupid like that.