There are some incredibly clever filmmakers out there right now who clearly want to take the romantic comedy genre, blow it up, and turn it into something vibrant and new. Rachel Bloom, Sera Gamble, Stephen Falk, and all their co-workers on their respective shows Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You, and You’re the Worst – they’re the ones to watch.
You definitely won’t find any of those people working on movies like What Men Want & Isn’t It Romantic, two modern, female-fronted takes on the troubled trouble which play to formula and are each aggressively mediocre. If a film comedy’s value can be determined by the number of times they make you laugh, these two pass a three-laugh minimum, but just barely.
What Men Want
Mel Gibson’s 2000 megahit What Women Want, which has not aged well at all, presupposes that women have richer interior lives than men. Yes, Gibson gaining access to Marisa Tomei, Helen Hunt, and countless other women’s interior monologues is an obvious violation, but it’s also an easy story-starter thanks to all of the things women think but do not say. It’s not woke through 2019 eyes, but you can at least see why Nancy Meyers was willing to put her name on such a story in 2000.
The notion of gender-switching this storyline has always seemed suspect because, stereotypically, you don’t really need some magical ability to figure out what the average man really wants. Where’s the real comedy or surprise? In such a scenario, isn’t a woman more likely to overhear some disturbing, sexist shit rolling around in a guy’s head instead of some plot-advancing insight into their character? Couldn’t this actually be a total nightmare for a woman to deal with?
Yeahhhh…What Men Want’s screenwriters Tina Gordon, Alex Gregory, and Peter Huyck want absolutely nothing to do with any of those questions. Instead, they run as far away from them as possible, choosing to play it safe by plugging and playing What Women Want with Taraji P. Henson subbing in Gibson and tacking on a half-assed commentary about gender roles and the unfair challenges for women trying to make it a man’s world. The men’s interior monologues, btw, mostly reveals how cartoonishly dumb they are. At least this time a cup of tea and a hit to the head kickstart the magical realism instead of electrocution.
They’re still so stuck in the old ways, however, that they make a 2019 movie which has an “oh, isn’t that cute” novelty view of homosexual relationships – Henson’s assistant is gay – which seems at least a decade behind the times.
On the plus side, Henson brings more to the character than is on the page, Erykah Badu delights as the nutty woman who inadvertently brings about Henson’s transformation, and as with What Women Want the bedroom remains a reliably hilarious arena for differing male/female viewpoints. On the downside, this is a remake on autopilot, assuming all the work was already done the moment they switched the genders of the characters (the race-switching element is acknowledged, but hardly utilized). It all works best if you’re lucky enough to see What Men Want with a boisterous audience more than willing to forgive all those storytelling sins, which I was.
Isn’t It Romantic
While What Men Want’s status as a remake is hardly a secret, Isn’t It Romantic has worked much harder to conceal that fact that it is basically a remake as well. The trailers promise a broad satire of the entire-rom genre, but instead Rebel Wilson’s journey in a parallel universe just turns into a rehash of the plot of My Best Friend’s Wedding, right down to a big karaoke scene, gay best friend who seems to magically appear when the plot demands, and climactic grand romantic gesture gone wrong.
The set-up: Wilson is a frustrated single woman in New York City, and in true rom-com fashion she’s an architect of completely indeterminate professional background or means. She grew up loving rom-coms like Pretty Woman, but life, time – and a brutally honest mother – have hardened her to cinema’s bullshit version of love. Nevermind that Wilson is kind of already stuck in a rom-com scenario of her own since her best guy friend at work (Adam DeVine) is so clearly in love with her yet can’t get her to look at him that way.
After a hit to the head – seriously, Hollywood, find a new trope – she wakes up in one of those Last Action Hero/Final Girls parallel universes where everything flows according to the laws of one specific film genre like a 90s actionfest or 80s slasher. In this case, it’s the romantic comedy, and as with Final Girls her shock at her new surroundings quickly gives way to a determination to simply let the plot play out under the assumption that getting to the end of the story might be her only way out.
Before you know it, she’s living out My Best Friend’s Wedding. She’s the Julia Roberts. Obviously. Priyanka Chopra, playing a “yoga ambassador” (“Countries have ambassadors, we don’t need one for stretching,” Wilson memorably burns), is in for Cameron Diaz. DeVine makes for a far geekier Dermot Mulroney.
It’s not a 1:1 comparison. Wilson gains a clearly-wrong-for-her boyfriend in the plot in the form of a dimwitted Australian billionaire played by Liam Hemsworth. (He has a running gag about quoting famous people as if the perfectly-selected quote can solve any given problem.) He has no real My Best Friend’s Wedding analogue. The same goes for Betty Gilpin as Wilson’s assistant/best female friend at work in the real world but inexplicable professional rival in the fantasy world of the rom-com.
Either way, it’s all purposefully familiar, yet before long the high concept of a woman stuck in a rom-com universe just turns into a standard rom-com. Screenwriters Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman lose track of the parody, which isn’t exactly a huge loss because most of their jokes about the genre’s tropes are the most obvious ones possible – no one ever has bedhead, New York clearly looks fake and sanitized, being two examples – and only mildly amuse.
Still, it rings as a disappointment because you’re sitting there thinking, “There is SO MUCH more they could be doing with this.” When the parody suddenly comes back in the end to point out how painful a mad dash to the wedding chapel would be for a woman without a sports bra, it’s a reminder of the types of jokes there should have been more of.
But Isn’t It Romantic just wants to tell a story about a girl who learns to love herself before seeking love from anyone else, which ends up being Wilson’s character arc. Along the way, what’s the harm in indulging in a little harmless fantasy like a big musical number set to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
Other films like They Came Together and Date Movie have tried much harder to parody the rom-com; Isn’t It Romantic just wants to be a rom-com with a slight don’t-let-a-man-define-you update, which would be fine if the punchlines were funnier and tropes a little less familiar. However, this is ultimately a harmlessly mediocre movie from a cast who gives it their all. The musical numbers slay.