Romantic comedies are a great form of escapist entertainment — they promise a happy ending no matter the circumstances. But even hardcore fans know that the genre is far from perfect. Your average rom-com couple are straight, thin, white, cis-gender, and able-bodied, which leaves out a huge chunk of the moviegoing public and doesn't even come close to accurately depicting the world. That's why Australian comedian Rebel Wilson feels so passionate about her new movie Isn't It Romantic, because it helps push forward the idea that these movies have to be inclusive in order for the genre to grow and survive.
"Over 70 percent of women in America are considered plus size, which is size 14 or over," Wilson says, an estimate that's supported a 2018 Racked piece. "And yet, less than one percent of all the films made star a plus-size woman. It really isn't representational. Not that movies have to be exactly, but I love that I do get to portray a real woman. I am the average size, currently like a size 16-18, of the average American woman. I am proud to do that."
Wilson is not the first plus-size romantic comedy lead. She first asserted this during an appearance on The Ellen Show and later apologized for the error and for blocking critics on Twitter, including several women of color, who called her attention to it. The list of existing rom-coms starring plus-size women is, however, very short.
In Isn't It Romantic, Wilson plays Natalie, a cynic who hits her head while getting mugged on a subway platform only to wake up to find that she's trapped in her worst nightmare: a PG-13 romantic comedy. The film skewers many recognizable rom-com tropes, making Natalie both an actual leading lady and a meta observer. Underneath the funny moments and Easter eggs, the movie is exploring how romantic comedy realities aren't perfect for anyone, particularly marginalized people.
For instance, after the accident, Natalie's drug-dealing neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) transforms into her new gay BFF, who pops up — literally pops up — whenever she needs a makeover or advice, while not seeming to have a life outside of hers.
"That's making a comment on how the gay character was always marginalized traditionally in those films and relegated to being just the best friend," Wilson explains. "You don't ever really hear about their life in the film."
"It especially calls out what we're trying to do," adds co-star Priyanka Chopra, who plays the objectively perfect Isabella. "It's so convoluted because you're playing the stereotype, you have to play it up to actually deconstruct it. That was so cool with that character."
"We could have gone like, instead of having a gay character, have a 'diversity character,' who often in the big Hollywood rom-coms are [also] being marginalized," Wilson adds, bringing up racial tokenism. "We went with the character Donny, and I think it makes a good point. It shows how far now representation of gay characters has come in movies. You just look at someone's work, like Ryan Murphy, and all the brilliant complex characters he's created over the last decade that [are] much more representational."
But every genre, including one that many write off as being fluffy and broad, needs and deserves that representation.
While Wilson knows that not every movie can be for "every girl," she's proud to be playing a plus-size woman in a romantic storyline that doesn't revolve around her weight. "There is a lot happening in Hollywood, a lot of advancements for women, a lot of advancements in diversity," she says. "And then in this one, the size representation is a positive message."
"In most places, you go to a restaurant and there is a million different types of people there," says Wilson's Pitch Perfect costar Adam Devine, who plays Natalie's best friend Josh. "[Movies] need to be how the world is. That is important and with Rebel producing this movie, she was a great hands-on producer — I think she did a great job casting the movie to reflect the world."
So why has it taken longer for romantic comedies to push the representation needle, compared to other types of movies? Wilson looks at that issue "from an academic standpoint."
Despite rom-coms being deemed entertainment for and about women, historically, there are "not a ton of female writers and directors" in the drivers' seats, the actor points out. (Isn't It Romantic was directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and written by Dana Fox, Erin Cardillo, and Kate Silberman.) "Maybe that's why it's been a bit slower to adapt and change," she continues.
She hopes that the impact of Isn't It Romantic will compare in some way to Crazy Rich Asians, which features an all-Asian cast and is now the highest grossing romantic comedy of the past 10 years. "I thought that film did a great job too in creating something that was still a rom-com but different in the way it presented all of its characters," Wilson adds. "It was really awesome to see."
Because it's important that movie fans see themselves reflected in all types of films, not just the serious, dark ones. "Not every movie needs to win the Oscar, not every movie needs to be so heavy or a true think piece," Devine says. "They can just make you feel good and make you forget about your crappy day at work or whatever problems you're having in your relationship. You can just laugh and have fun and leave the theater feeling better than when you walked in."
But that's not to say that Isn't It Romantic is without a lesson. Natalie's journey is a more of an internal one, and it should be universally applicable.
"I hope that people laugh and get a good message about self-empowerment, and believing in yourself, and loving yourself before you can truly love anyone else," Devine adds. "I think it's such a good message to spread, and I just wish it had been made 15 years ago.
Isn't It Romantic hits theaters on Feb. 13. Better late than never!