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Films I Neglected To Review: Legally Bland
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Isn't It Romantic" and "Lorena."

As ''Isn't It Romantic'' opens, young Natalie is adoringly watching ''Pretty Woman'' while her mother (Jennifer Saunders) admonishes her that romantic comedies are nothing more than lies created by Hollywood that bear absolutely no relationship to the real world. A couple of decades later, the now-adult Natalie (now played by Rebel Wilson) has taken those sentiments to heart and chides a co-worker (Betty Gilpin) for buying into those very same lies with the kind of elongated spiel that suggests that she has put just a little too much thought into the subject over the years despite her protestations. Things change when Natalie gets knocked unconscious during a mugging attempt and seems to wake up not in the real world but in a standard-issue rom-com--every location looks like a setting from an upscale catalogue shoot, every person is impossibly good-looking and romance, not to mention the scent of lavender, is perpetually in the air. (Not sex, however--it is a decidedly PG-13 rom-com that she has found herself in.) With the help of her platonic best pal (Adam Devine), Natalie tries to negotiate her way through this nightmare but slowly begins to think of him as more than a ''friend'' but alas, he has just been swept off his feet by a gorgeous swimsuit model/''yoga ambassador'' (Priyanka Chopra) and is heading towards the altar with record speed. At the same time, she finds herself succumbing to the charms of an impossibly hunky billionaire (Liam Hemsworth), though that pesky PG-13 rating has a tendency to get in the way during the fun parts.

Movies commenting on the specific cliches and tropes of a particular genre are nothing especially new--Woody Allen did it to absolutely perfect effect with his sublime masterpiece ''The Purple Rose of Cairo''--and lord knows that the rom-com has more than its fair share of gimmicks that people love to mock when the films donít work but swoon over when they do. The problem with ''Isn't It Romantic'' is that it is almost never as smart and clever as it clearly thinks itself to be. The cliches that it mocks are the most obvious ones and while a couple of the jokes are funny (such as the observations regarding the borderline offensive nature of the obligatory gay best pal), too many of them find the filmmakers swinging at extremely low-hanging fruit and still not always making contact. A bigger and more mystifying problem is that, presumably in order to not totally alienate the devoted rom-com fan base that might not take to having their favorite genre brutally skewered, the film makes a bizarre turn in the second half so that a story that starts off by mocking cliched and implausible romantic comedies winds up becoming a perfect example of the very thing that it is ostensibly ridiculing. The actors are all game enough but not even their collective charms can help move things along and towards the end, their efforts have pretty much gone to waste. As an incisive and humorous look as to the narrative follies of the contemporary romantic comedy and why people still buy into them nevertheless, ''Isnít It Romantic'' is slightly less incisive than what you might after watching ''13 Going On 30'' from your sofa in the company of your BFFs and a bag of Oreos.

For those of us who lived during the time when the story was grabbing all the headlines, it would seem as if there is hardly anything else left to possibly say about the sad and ugly story of Lorena Bobbitt and her then-husband John Wayne Bobbitt. As it turns out, there is still plenty to say about that particular incident and it is covered in ''Lorena'', a four-part, four-hour long documentary for Amazon (executive-produced by Jordan Peele) that takes a deep dive into both the story and how it is still of considerable relevance today. For those who werenít around, back in 1993, Lorena Bobbitt was a 24-year-old Virginia woman who cut off her husband's penis with a kitchen knife while he slept and drove off, throwing the organ out the window along the way. She claimed that she was driven to do this as the result of years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that left her traumatized while he inevitably denied everything. As both Bobbitts went on trial for their respective crimes, the incident became a worldwide media sensation (even their shared last name seemed somehow perfect for the story being told), all the more significant because this was in the days before 24-hour news cycles and the relentless tabloidization of the media. Even after the court cases came to their respective conclusions, there was still an insatiable curiosity about the case that continued to keep it alive long after it should have rightly faded from memory.

And yet, this film argues, the problem with all of that coverage is that most people observing the case--from the members of the legal system to the media to viewers lapping up every salacious detail in the tabloids--were so hung up with the details of what Lorena did to John (especially in regards to the retrieval, reattachment and subsequent life of the penis in question) that they never really gave much thought to the question of why she did what she did. Mass public awareness of domestic violence and sexual abuse against women was definitely not taken very seriously back in 1993 (the era of Tailhook, Anita Hill and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial) and even though plenty of women testified as to the ongoing stream of abuse that Lorena suffered, this seemingly key aspect was just shrugged off in order to pursue a narrative of a hot-blooded woman who snapped and did the worst thing that someone could do to a man--literally assault his manhood. (The local cops seems far more interested in recovering the severed penis than in any other part of the investigation.) Even this film, which is resolutely in Lorena's favor for the most part (though it does try to slightly humanize John towards the very end through some revelations about his own past), succumbs to this in a way by spending way too little time exploring how she went on after the turmoil to piece her life back together eventually develop a foundation to support victims of domestic violence while going long on John Wayne's increasingly embarrassing attempts to stay in the limelight, a gross roller-coaster that included financial mismanagement, a short-lived porn career, a botched penile enlargement surgery and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a stay in prison for battering a former fiancee. For the most part, however, ''Lorena'' is a smart and unsparing work that takes viewers far beyond the tacky headlines to explore the genuinely serious issues behind a saga that many wrote off as a joke in order to show us how far we have come in the last quarter-century in dealing with the once-taboos topics of domestic abuse and sexual violence against women and how very far we still have to go in those very same regards.

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originally posted: 02/16/19 04:06:20
last updated: 02/16/19 04:16:19
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