The past couple of years have been dire for the state of comedy films, with not one reaching $100 million blockbuster status last year, and not one major romantic comedy released into theaters at all. Only 2017’s “Girls Trip” really connected with audiences at a huge hit level, but that was marred by nonstop crassness including a scene in which Jada Pinkett Smith urinated on an entire crowd of Mardi Gras partiers when she got trapped dangling above them.
So I’m happy to report that things finally seem to be turning a corner, as theaters this weekend feature two major rom coms in last week’s hit “What Men Want” and the fantastic new release “Isn’t It Romantic.” Both films solidly deliver on both providing laughter and romance, and are a lot of fun to see while with an audience also unleashing the nearly-forgotten sound of collective laughter.
“Men” stars the excellent actress Taraji P. Henson (“Hustle and Flow,” Fox TV’s “Empire”) in a gender-flipped take on the 2000 smash hit Mel Gibson comedy “What Women Want,” in which he played a sexist rich guy who suddenly acquired the ability to hear women’s thoughts, and used it to his advantage. Here, Henson plays a sports agent named Ali Davis who is successful representing Olympic athletes but is overlooked for a promotion to partner at her firm because she’s not landing deals for professional star athletes.
Ali is also clueless in her dating life, focused only on her own pleasure during hookups and not bothering to think about long-term relationships. But when she visits a bizarre psychic (Erykah Badu) during a bachelorette party for one of her friends and drinks some strange-tasting tea the oracle gives her, she wakes up with the ability to hear what every man around her is thinking.
The results are funny from the get-go, as writer Tina Gordon Chism comes up with a seemingly endless parade of hilarious thoughts for Ali to overhear. And now that she can hear what her agency rivals are thinking, she’s able to trick her way into the running to land America’s hottest basketball prospect as her star client — if she can get past the doubts of his eccentric father Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan).
To win the traditional-minded Joe over, she pretends her latest one-night stand Will (Aldis Hodge) — who turns out to be a widowed single dad — and his son are her husband and son. But juggling all the lies puts her in a precarious place that will force her to learn some lessons.
These are all standard rom com plot elements, but “Men” succeeds greatly by handling its standard-level core material extremely well. Led by Henson and Morgan (who’s at his absolute nuttiest here), the cast is uniformly excellent, providing a constant stream of laughs while also handling the more heartfelt moments solidly as well. This isn’t high art, and it is predictable overall, but if you’re looking to laugh and have an upbeat date night, you will definitely be satisfied.
“Romantic” is far more inventive, as it plays fast and loose with every cliché in the romantic comedy genre to hilarious results. Starring comic force of nature Rebel Wilson (the “Pitch Perfect” trilogy) as a New York City architect named Natalie in her first-ever lead performance, the film opens by showing that she was obsessed with the movie “Pretty Woman” as a child in the ’90s until her mother convinced her that rom coms are filled with lies and no man will ever marry her since she’s heavyset.
Natalie is first seen waking up in an insanely tiny apartment before trudging to an office where she gets zero respect from everyone except her best friend Josh (Adam Devine), who is secretly in love with her. Natalie hopelessly pines for a handsome billionaire client named Blake (Liam Hemsworth), who utterly disregards her and treats her like the office coffee girl.
But things change when Natalie bangs her head into a pole while escaping a subway mugger, and wakes up to a shinier, hopelessly happier world in which everyone and everything around her seems to be part of a giant real-life romantic comedy. Suddenly Blake is obsessed with her, her newly glowing confidence is making her a star at work and her humble hovel has become an endlessly large, palatial condo filled with dozens of glamorous shoes and outfits that fit her perfectly.
To get back to the real world, she has to convince someone to fall in love with her, and Natalie sets her sights on winning Blake over. When Josh suddenly is engaged to a supermodel (Priyanka Chopra), she has to decide which guy will bring her true happiness.
This no doubt sounds predictable again, but the script by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox and Katie Silberman and the direction by Todd Strauss-Schulson are magical. “Romantic” tears apart seemingly hundreds of ridiculous rom com tropes while constantly creating fresh takes on the timeworn genre, and Strauss-Schulson keeps everything moving with high energy, including two incredible song and dance numbers that had the audience I screened this with applauding and cheering loudly. This will almost surely be on my ten favorite films list at the end of the year.
Either of these films is a fine choice for a fun night out on this Valentine’s weekend. Yet more importantly, they show that there’s still life in the comedy genre..
“What Men Want”: B
“Isn’t It Romantic”: A