Writing the modern rom-com: How the creators of ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ twisted tropes to both satirize and satisfy
When Ariana Grande dropped the music video for her single “Thank U, Next” in November, it broke the YouTube record for most views in 24 hours. Sure, the musician made gossipy references to her ex-boyfriends in the song, but what really made the video so popular was its cheeky homages to the romantic comedies Grande grew up loving — films like “13 Going on 30” and “Legally Blonde.”
Her timing couldn’t have been better. In 2018, the rom-com came back in a big way, with “Crazy Rich Asians” raking in over $238 million worldwide at the box office and Netflix films like “Set It Up” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” going viral.
And now, this Valentine’s Day, Warner Bros. is releasing “Isn’t It Romantic” — a rom-com that both skewers and celebrates the genre itself. The film, which stars Rebel Wilson, opens with a scene of a young girl planted in front of a television watching “Pretty Woman.” Her mother sits on the couch, observing disdainfully, as she advises her daughter not to buy into the fantasy. “Things like that don’t happen to girls like us,” she cautions.
As the girl turns into a woman, she grows to despise romantic comedies and all of their unrealistic ideals. That is until she gets hit on the head and wakes up in a romantic comedy all her own, where a handsome millionaire (played by Liam Hemsworth) falls for her, her apartment is transformed into a designer loft and she actually gets the respect she deserves at her architecture firm.
The film was written by three women who grew up loving rom-coms just like Grande — although they had different cinematic inspirations: “When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “Love and Basketball.” It was the brainchild of Erin Cardillo, an actress-turned-television-creator behind last year’s CW show “Life Sentence.”
“I grew up loving rom-coms,” Cardillo said. “And then I went through a phase where I was disillusioned with dating in my own life and I was like, ‘This is all bull ... . Why did I buy into this stuff?’ Those films always had a fantasy element for me, because my parents got divorced when I was 8 and I didn’t have a lot of examples of romantic love working out. So I’d watch them and think, ‘It’s gonna be different for me, and I’m going to find something like that.’”
She feels her version of a rom-com is landing at just the right time. “I think romantic comedies have gotten more grounded,” Cardillo said of the latest incarnations of the genre. “There’s a call to not have them all be pretty white girl problems. I love that there’s more diversity. Not everyone in the dating world is a supermodel when they take off their glasses.”
After Cardillo sold her script to New Line, genre veterans Dana Fox and Katie Silberman were hired to do rewrites; Fox’s rom-com resume includes “What Happens In Vegas,” “Couples Retreat” and “How to Be Single,” while Silberman — Fox’s former assistant — broke out last year with “Set It Up.”
“Katie and I went to a roundtable that New Line put together with all smart women to talk about what was working and what wasn’t working in the script,” Fox said, noting Cardillo’s concept gave them the perfect framework. You give everybody exactly what they want from a good rom-com, but you also get people who like to make fun of romantic comedies.”
We got Fox and Silberman together in conversation for their thoughts on all things rom-com: How the genre shaped them, how damaging its stereotypes can be and why so many are breaking out in Hollywood right now.
At the time you were asked to work on “Isn’t It Romantic,” did it feel rare for a studio to be getting behind a rom-com?
Dana Fox: Yes, because I hadn’t been hearing there was a spot for them. I think studios are in the business of “Iron Man” money. They’re looking for things that they can sell toys and make a zillion dollars and franchises. You felt like you weren’t just allowed to do a romantic comedy; you had to put romance into an action film or something.
Katie Silberman: But when I’d meet with producers or executives, it wasn’t like the love for the genre was gone. They were so effusive about the rom-coms they loved.
Fox: Actors, for a while, weren’t down with that particular genre. They thought it looked cheesy or like selling out. I had a hard time casting sometimes; you had to convince people that it was going to be cool and fun.
Do you think that romantic comedies propagate unrealistic ideals?
Fox: We couldn’t be any more feminist pro-lady if you paid us to be, so we really care about what our work is saying to the world. It’s crazy if you don’t think what you watch completely forms your sense of self. We tried to talk about that in the film. You see them asking if romantic comedies are damaging and what it does to women that they watch films that tell them they’re nothing unless they find Prince Charming.
I for sure ran into certain stereotypes in developing every movie I ever wrote with a female actress. No matter what a female character did, if they said something that was remotely controversial, they were branded as unlikable. So if you wanted to have a complex female character, she also had to trip or cry really early on in the movie. Or I would make her a baby vet — which is a vet of only baby animals — because you have to give some weight to making them more likable. You don’t think they’re hard-and-fast rules until you’ve been asked to do them so many times that you’re like, “I think it’s these are just rules.”
Silberman: One thing I notice when I go back and watch romantic comedies is how anyone who doesn’t look or behave like a traditional lead is relegated to a side character who only comments on the lead.
Fox: And female sexuality is treated differently at the MPAA. You could shoot somebody point blank and their head could explode, but if you try to talk about the female orgasm, it’s, like, R-rated instantly. There’s still a lot of ways in which the damaging stereotypes in these movies are mirroring the damaging stereotypes in life, and we all have to work hard to take them down one by one.
Would you consider yourselves romantics?
Fox: All I ever want to do is talk to my friends about their relationships. My favorite thing is when a couple get engaged and you ask the woman, “Oh, my God, how did it happen?” And an hour and a half later, she’s, like, “And then he got down on one knee.” And the guy is, like, “I proposed to her.” And you’re, like, “That’s not a story! Start from when you were born!”
In November, Rebel posted the “Isn’t It Romantic” trailer and said she was proud to be “the first-ever plus-sized” romantic comedy lead. She faced backlash from Twitter users who pointed out that she was ignoring actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique. What did you think about her comments?
Silberman: I love all of those movies [that critics referenced], and I’m glad that it was a moment for people to recognize that there are movies maybe they hadn’t remembered that they could go back and watch and see a variety of different women being showcased.
Some fans also pointed out similarities with Amy Schumer’s “I Feel Pretty,” which came out last year and stars a woman who only starts to feel beautiful and gain self-confidence after she’s hit on the head.
Fox: I haven’t seen “I Feel Pretty.” I was concerned about it, from the trailer, feeling too similar to our movie.
Silberman: I saw it. The messages are similarly about self-acceptance vs. societal acceptance — creating that foundation of loving yourself before you can love anyone else.
“I Feel Pretty” received backlash of its own because critics argued that if someone like Schumer wasn’t considered attractive in the film, what did that say about those who conformed even less to traditional beauty norms? Do you worry your film will face similar controversy?
Fox: I felt lucky we had Rebel, because she is always helpful in making it feel authentic and real. When you hang out with Rebel, she thinks she’s amazing, so you’re like, “Great, she’s amazing.” She’s different, theoretically, than some people, but she is also the same as some people. I think we were pretty careful not to have any talk of “Oh, because you’re overweight, you can’t have this.” It’s not her issue.
Silberman: Self-confidence and loving yourself is the only thing you can control. I’m not saying it’s the answer to all problems. But I love that theme in movies — not waiting for external validation but believing in yourself beforehand to do it. It’s also the difference between older people saying “That never happened to me!” when watching something they think isn’t realistic and younger people saying “Oh, that maybe could happen to me.” You can’t be or wish for something you haven’t seen.
Fox: And I think people are looking to have an experience that takes them out of their regular life. I think that’s part of the allure of the “bonk on the head” movie. Maybe someone doesn’t have the ability to do that for themselves in their right mind in the real world, so you’ve gotta give them permission to take the gloves off — and sometimes it takes the bonk on the head for that.
I’ve also found that the skinniest, prettiest person in the room is oftentimes the saddest. It does actually matter how you feel about yourself, not really how you look. Men are drawn to women who have self-confidence, I think. Yes, there’s a certain reality to the superficiality of our society, but your reality is only inside your head.
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