Movies | February 12, 2019 5:00 am

The Movie That Almost Made Us Fall in Love With Rom-Coms Again. Almost.

“Isn’t It Romantic” isn’t a classic, but is standout in genre that’s gone cold. 

Rebel WIlson as Natalie in New Line Cinema's comedy "ISN'T IT ROMANTIC." (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
Rebel WIlson as Natalie in New Line Cinema's comedy "ISN'T IT ROMANTIC." (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Love for sale: It’s everywhere you look – at least during Valentine’s Day week.  Big heart-shaped boxes of candy. Dozens of long-stemmed red roses.

Glossy Hollywood rom-coms.

Just try not to think about the thousands of calories in that gourmet chocolate assortment. Or the working conditions of the people growing those bouquets.

Or the sexist stereotypes embedded in those movies.

Because sometimes, when you take a good look at the pretty thing you’re about to buy, you realize you’re being sold a bill of goods.

The snarky new rom-com, “Isn’t it Romantic,” gets it. Starring a charmingly no-nonsense Rebel Wilson, it’s based on a comedy premise going back at least as far as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “The Wizard of Oz” — a main character gets hit on the head and wake up in an alternate universe.

Last year, in “I Feel Pretty,” Amy Schumer was conked on the noggin and woke up convinced she was runway-model-perfect — a sharp, if widely misread, commentary on how if we’re honestly okay with the way we look, others probably will be, too.

This time it’s Wilson who gets knocked unconscious. And slips into some sort of sassy romantic-comedy world, complete with improbable New York apartment, outrageous gay neighbor, witchy female rival and two different but adoring men to choose from. Oh, and her hair and makeup are always perfect.

Although we’re also in PG-13 land, where even when she takes a man to bed they never actually seem to have sex, and every time she starts to curse, sound effects censor her every four-letter word.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The film’s satire is both affectionate and knowing; not surprisingly, several of the movie’s screenwriters are rom-com survivors. And Wilson — usually the “fun friend” in other people’s projects — is clearly thrilled to have a movie of her own.

But is this the only kind of rom-com we’re willing to accept any more? A movie with its tongue in its cheek, and air quotes around every “moment”?  A film in which the very idea of a feel-good romantic comedy is, itself, a joke?

If so, it’s a bit of a shame.

Maybe romantic comedies themselves are to blame.

They had a golden age decades ago, when the genre not only meant Kate and Cary, Claudette and Clark, but a battle of the sexes that was also a meeting of equals. For 15 years, from the beginning of the Depression to the end of World War II — with many men unemployed or absent — real-life women had a larger share of the power. And the movies reflected that, with squabbles between men and women always ending in a decisive draw — or, at least, a tender truce.

Actress Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in a scene from the movie “It Happened One Night” (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
Getty Images

But by the late ’40s, men started taking power back. And the rom-com not only lost its sexy sophistication, but its edgy sense of equality. They became movies about handsome wolves chasing sexy lambs. Sophisticated metrosexuals like William Powell were replaced by professional heterosexuals like Rock Hudson, worldly women like Myrna Loy gave way to perpetual virgins like Doris Day. The romantic jousting continued but it was no longer a fair fight.

There have been a few social earthquakes since then – the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, gay liberation — but, as “Isn’t It Romantic” knows, none of those rebellions really reached the rom-com world. For all the surface changes (bathroom humor, a couple of off-color jokes) even the genre’s latest hits could have made back in 1965. The heroine is sexually active, but not too active. She has a career but, oddly, not a lot of ambition. And the gay character is – hell-o! – strictly comic relief.

Meanwhile the plots are barely worth talking about, as they’ve all been trimmed down to the same bare bones. Act One: Hero and heroine “meet cute,” quickly overcome initial dislike, fall in love, and share some adorable escapades. (Insert strolls around pretty park or seascape here.) Act Two:  Ridiculous misunderstanding (“Why didn’t you tell me about…”/”Who was that I saw you with…”), which would be cleared up in two sentences in real life, suddenly tears them apart.

And now, time for Act Three: After a montage showing the couple moping about, the ex-lovers — usually after some tough love from hero’s slobby bro who’s suddenly talking sense/heroine’s bitchy pal who finally thinks the hero isn’t a total jerk — hurry to patch it up. (Five bonus points if this includes literally racing somewhere else; 10 if it’s an airport, 20 if a wedding.)

The rules have been in place for decades, and “Isn’t It Romantic” knows them — and follows them, even as it’s making fun of the tropes.

Although, to its real credit, it also does something previous romantic comedies starring Schumer and Candice Bergen and Queen Latifah didn’t do — it doesn’t make Wilson’s less than Hollywood-approved size a big deal. It doesn’t really comment on it at all. In fact, its real message, undoubtedly positive, albeit so obviously inarguably empowering it might as well be Oprah-approved, is In the End, the Person I Needed to Fall in Love With Was Me.

A little sappy. Yet, for many movies aimed at women, it’d be a real step forward.

Now, if the next rom-com would only take one small step back.

Yes, it’s a relief not to have scenes of a less-than-skeletal woman struggling to get into Spanx, or out of her compact car, or stuffing her face with junk food. But it’d be nice to go back to the days when even a romantic-comedy didn’t feel obligated to include a scene of the heroine’s dog pooping, or a description of the hero’s massive penis. When it made room for at least a little witty dialogue. And maybe evening clothes. And a slow dance or two.

This new, sarcastic sense of realism — and body-positive feminism — is welcome. But just a touch of old-fashioned elegance? That’d be just lovely. And truly romantic.