In Theaters

What does it take to love someone? The answer may surprise you, as its origins actually stem from a source that might not be recognized at first glance. But making that realization is crucial if we ever hope to find that true love, an insight pursued in earnest in the delightful new romantic comedy parody, “Isn’t It Romantic” (web site, trailer).

When pudgy 12-year-old Aussie Natalie (Alexandra Kis) gawks at a screening of the 1990 romantic fantasy “Pretty Woman,” she longs for the same kind of happily-ever-after ending for herself experienced by lead characters Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. But that wide-eyed wonder is summarily quashed by the hard-edged cynicism of her mother (Jennifer Saunders), who tells her daughter that such outcomes are unrealistic for common folk like them. Needless to say, Natalie is crushed, but she nevertheless takes the “advice” as gospel.

Fast forward to the present day, when a twenty-something Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is now an architect living in New York. However, despite the seeming prestige such a position should offer, she’s often put upon by co-workers (Zach Cherry, Sandy Honig) who ask her to perform menial tasks for them or even do their jobs. Even her personal assistant, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), is of little help, ignoring her responsibilities and spending her days endlessly watching romantic comedies on her computer. About the only person in her corner is her co-worker Josh (Adam Devine), who actively seeks to court her friendship and build up her morale. But even that encouragement does little to bolster her spirits when she’s treated shabbily during a project presentation by one of the firm’s clients, Blake (Liam Hemsworth), a terminally handsome but arrogant businessman who thoughtlessly assumes she’s the coffee girl and not the professional that she is.

Such treatment only reinforces the general malaise she feels about her life. With little respect at her office, no looming romantic prospects and even a pet dog that ignores her, Natalie feels like life is passing her by, but she accepts and expects that, an attitude that echoes the sentiments planted in her mind by her mother all those years ago. She even chastises Whitney for wasting so much time watching her silly movies, claiming that those pictures, like the film she gawked at as a youngster, paint an implausible picture of romance. Natalie recites a litany of clichés that characterize the pictures of that genre and itemizes how their narratives fill the heads of their viewers with naïve, unrealistic notions about love.

After yet another unfulfilling day at work, while riding home on the New York City subway, Natalie gets hit on by a flirty stranger (Dean Neistat). Unfortunately, the would-be suitor turns out to be a mugger. But, despite an attempt at snatching Natalie’s purse, the attacker is unprepared for his victim’s ability to fight back, an effort at which she nearly succeeds – were it not for running into a support beam and knocking herself unconscious.

When Natalie awakens, she finds herself in an emergency room unlike anything she’s ever seen. The designer hospital suite looks more like something from an interior decorator’s studio than a health care facility. The attending physician is a hunk, and flowers adorn everything. And, upon release, Natalie discovers an outdoor streetscape that resembles the set of a Hallmark movie.

Natalie naturally wonders how New York ended up looking like this. Gone are the grubbiness and the foul smells to which she’s grown accustomed. And everywhere she looks she sees couples madly in love. Given that everything she’s witnessing goes against her views about reality, she’s convinced she’s got to find a way to escape and get back to the existence that she knows and … loves?

Yet, as she makes her way through this alternate existence, she finds virtually everything is now working to her benefit. Her apartment has been transformed into something out of Architectural Digest. Her dog adores her. And Blake, the client who previously treated her like dirt, is now head over heels in love with her.

But is this allegedly perfect reality everything it’s cracked up to be? Whitney, for example, has suddenly been transformed from a warm and supportive colleague into a wicked witch. Josh, though still in Natalie’s corner, has taken a shine to a super model, Isabella (Priyanka Chopra). Blake, despite his claims of undying love, reveals that his affection comes with strings. So, given all that, is this really where Natalie wants to stay? And, if not, how does she escape?

The answer is not out of reach, but Natalie will need to discover where to look, and that may prove challenging. However, if she really wants to make a change – one that ultimately involves more than just a return to the reality she knows – she’ll have to take on that challenge. And the answer to that may surprise her – and us.

The quest to find the meaning of true love can take many twists and turns. And, since most of us are born without a guidebook, that can turn the search into an exercise in trial and error. We may look at the examples set by others. We may attempt winging it on our own. Or we may look to others for advice, as Natalie does in consulting her best friend and next-door neighbor, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones), the sort of unattached, flamboyant but infinitely wise gay man who often makes for a staple rom-com character. But, in the end, given that we have engaged in this search, perhaps we should consider starting with ourselves to see what we bring to the table of romance. Once we do that, we may find our quest much easier to fulfill.

“Isn’t It Romantic” explores what true love really means and where it originates. While at times a bit belaboring and at other times somewhat underdeveloped, the film is a generally charming rom-com parody reminiscent of the fun-filled independent production “(500) Days of Summer” (2009), albeit somewhat more commercial. The picture delivers lots of laughs and nice sentiments about matters that go beyond romance. Rebel Wilson shows that she can carry a lead role effectively, serving up the goods at every turn. And the film’s skewering of romantic comedy clichés, such as the inclusion of several impromptu, perfectly choreographed, over-the-top music video sequences, is an absolute hoot.

For something that we place so much attention on, you’d think that we’d all be experts by now when it comes to this thing called love. If only that were true. But that’s not to say we can’t master it with the right attitude, the right outlook and a willingness to put in the work to figure it out. After all, for those of us who’ve succeeded at this, we can honestly say that the effort is well worth it. And that truly is romantic.

A complete review will be available in the near future by clicking here.

The Price of Popularity

What does it mean to be liked? That can be a loaded question, depending on the context. But, in an age of omnipresent social media (and the social ostracism that often accompanies it, which can take myriad forms, again depending on the context), that question can become even more precarious. And, on top of all that, our responses to those circumstances can be truly mind-boggling. These are just some of the issues faced by an insecure citizen in an insecure society in the offbeat new Iranian dark comedy, “Pig” (“Khook”) (web site, trailer).

Filmmaker Hasan Kasmai (Hassan Majooni) is supremely frustrated. Once one of Iran’s most popular and respected directors, Hasan now finds himself on the outs, having been blacklisted by the government as a creator of subversive movies. Unable to get his proposed projects approved, he’s been relegated to directing TV commercials for innocuous products like bug spray. He still tries to bring his signature style to these “productions,” but it’s not the same, especially when he must sit back and watch filmmakers he considers less talented able to get work.

Hasan is also upset that his star actress (and mistress), Shiva Mohajer (Leila Hatami), is about to be cast in a production directed by one of his rivals, Sohrab Saidi (Ali Masaffa), a filmmaker Hasan considers pretentious, overrated and lacking in ability. Hasan pleads with Shiva to reconsider taking the part, but she says she can no longer wait for his name to be cleared from the blacklist; after several years of patiently waiting for Hasan to return to the ranks of active auteurs, she says she needs the work to maintain her profile and simply can’t wait any longer.

As this little drama plays out, however, an even bigger one is unfolding. Mysteriously, a number of Iran’s other filmmakers (especially subversive ones) are being murdered, beheaded in graphic fashion, with the results displayed under highly visible conditions and the word “pig” carved into their foreheads. It’s a subject on everyone’s mind in the public at large and Iran’s film community in particular, including Hasan, but for reasons that aren’t the same as most everyone else. He wonders why he hasn’t become a target himself. He’s “insulted” at being “passed over,” something that only further feeds his insecurities and makes him feel even more “left out.” Most look upon this worry in wonder, believing that he should be grateful for being spared. But not Hasan – he’s tired of being shunned, even in such gruesome circumstances. He consequently seeks ways to get involved in the mystery, hoping it will resurrect his profile and popularity – and maybe even draw the killer his way.

Blacklisted filmmaker Hasan Kasmai (Hassan Majooni, right) and his longtime friend, Homayoun (Siamak Ansari, left), partake in an array of wild schemes to solve a series of murder mysteries while restoring the director’s reputation in the hilarious new Iranian dark comedy, “Pig” (“Khook”). Photo courtesy of Daricheh Cinema.

In the meantime, Shiva begins work on Sohrab’s film, a development that infuriates Hasan. He even believes that the director may be trying to woo the actress away from him, a notion that leads to embarrassing public incidents and strained relations between him and Shiva. Needless to, say, Hasan grows even more despondent and isolated.

Others try to cheer up Hasan, such as his elderly, doting, occasionally foul-mouthed mother, Jeyran (Mina Jafarzadeh), who ardently believes her baby can do no wrong and who’s willing to go to extreme lengths to protect him against any threats, no matter how great or incidental. Then there’s Hasan’s longtime friend and tennis partner, Homayoun (Siamak Ansari), who’s willing to indulge his pal’s whims, no matter how looney some of them may be. But, regardless of how much help his supporters provide, they never seem to satiate Hasan’s bottomless appetite for recognition and attention.

As time passes, the heat gets turned up considerably. Hasan finds himself being pursued by a persistent stalker, Annie (Parinaz Izadyar), who claims she’s smitten with the filmmaker and is interested in finding a way of becoming cast in his next production (whenever that will be), even though her unpredictable actions often make these contentions questionable. But, even more troublesome than that, claims circulate against Hasan that he’s killing the other directors (after all, accusers claim, how has he managed to survive while all of the others are dying?). Those accusations get fueled with further speculation when he’s placed near the scene of one of the murders, but, when Hasan is questioned by an investigator (Ali Bagheri), he’s cleared of all suspicion. Nevertheless, when word of his possible connection to the crimes is leaked to social media, he’s tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion, despite the authorities’ finding of innocence.

Ironically, Hasan suddenly has more popularity than what he knows to do with, but it’s far from the kind of notoriety he’s been seeking. What’s he to do to clear his falsely accused name and restore his reputation? That’s the challenge he now faces, one that perches him perilously on multiple fronts. And it’s bigger than anything he’s had to address thus far.

Long sidelined from the acting scene, leading lady Shiva Mohajer (Leila Hatami) returns to moviemaking over the objection of her blacklisted lover and collaborator in the inventive new Iranian dark comedy, “Pig” (“Khook”). Photo courtesy of Daricheh Cinema.

Hasan’s got a lot to sort out, but, before he can implement any corrective measures, he needs to decide what’s most important in his life. What gives him meaning? What provides genuine satisfaction? And what does he want for his future? On top of that, even if he’s able to answer these questions, what is he going to do about them?

This is all particularly true where issues of popularity and likability are concerned. Are they everything they’re believed to be? If so, what does he need to do to recover them? And, if not, what’s to take their place, if anything? Hasan, it would seem, has his work cut out for him.

Director Mani Haghighi’s Farsi-cal crime story is quite an unexpected treat. Given the kinds of films that typically come out of Iran, one likely wouldn’t think that a dark comedy such as this would be among the releases. Nevertheless, this hilarious romp serves up big laughs amidst its many intriguing twists and turns. At the same time, the picture delivers a number of insightful, subtle observations about social media, the meaning of fame, and a host of other political and civic issues. What’s more, this exceedingly polished offering resembles contemporary Western releases much more than most of its homegrown peers, with gorgeous cinematography, snappy writing, high-quality production values, and influences from a variety of sources, including music videos, the films of the Coen Brothers and other outlets. The picture has a slight tendency to meander at times, but everything seemingly extraneous ends up playing a part in the end, making for a taut, well-told tale. Sensitive viewers should be aware, however, that there is some graphic imagery in this one; it never gets out of context, but it may still be more than some moviegoers can handle. “Pig” may be a little hard to find, but it’s worth a look if you have the chance.

Many of us would probably say that we’d like to be liked. But at what cost? How far are we willing to go to achieve the popularity we claim to crave? And at what point does the cost become too high? That’s something we each need to determine for ourselves, but the answers may take some scrutiny to determine exactly what we’re willing to do – and how far we’re willing to go – to attain that attention. Be sure to remember, though, as this film sternly cautions, it’s not something worth losing your head over.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

My Oscar Scorecard

So what came of my Academy Award predictions? Find out by reading “How’d I Do on This Year’s Oscars?”, available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.