The best parodies, I have mentioned here and there, come not from a place of superiority, but of love; they are never motivated by the desire to mock, but by a great deal of love for all of the fiddly little details of the thing being made the butt of jokes. In that spirit, let me just say that Isn't It Romantic has a whole fucking lot of fiddly little details about 1990s romantic comedies.

The film, written by Erin Cardillo and Dana Fox & Katie Silberman, gets that '90s vibe down right from the sky-high concept, which absolutely feels like it could have been successfully pitched at the tail end of the decade that had produced Groundhog Day and Scream. Once upon a time in Australia, there was a little girl who loved watching lighthearted romcoms, till the day her blowsy mother informed her with a snarl that overweight nobodies didn't get the happy endings of a Julia Roberts type. 25 years later, Natalie (Rebel Wilson), that selfsame little girl, is now a successful New York architect, and she's internalised her mother's bad attitude to a degree that she's both sworn off of romance in general, and cultivated a hatred for romantic comedies that has very nearly taken on the status of a religious belief. Both of these problems are about to be addressed in the same way: during a subway mugging, Natalie gets knocked out, and she is horrified to wake up in a world full of enormous, economically infeasible apartments, darling neighborhood stores in every shade of lavender, gorgeous men beaming with vapid kindness as they say and do all the exactly right things, and well-timed beeping noises every time she tries to say "fuck". In short, Natalie now lives in a PG-13 romantic comedy, and the only way to get out of it is to allow herself to live through the brutally formulaic narrative. Which means, of course, overcoming her sour cynicism to find true love in exactly the most obvious place.

So Groundhog Day, Scream, and a little bit of A Christmas Carol, I guess.

The film's extremely obvious central flaw is that it operates entirely out front and on the surface. The first act, before Natalie is concussed into her genre fantasy, is a bit of a dreary slog, laying out the rules of the '90s-style romcom in a wordy sprawl that's not in any way interesting to watch, and minutely telegraphing every single plot point and joke that's going to come. The film wants to be a loving parody for the genre-savvy, but it's also obviously terrified that the merely genre-acquainted might not get every fine detail of the thing, and so we get anguishing conversations like when Natalie says, for example "isn't it nice that we can both be women in a professional environment without cattily jockeying for position, as happens between women in romcoms?" or words to that very unmistakable effect, to her romcom-loving assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin), to make sure that we absolutely, under no circumstances whatsoever, will fail to get the gag when Romcom World Whitney turns out to be a firebreathing harridan with an alarmingly high forehead.

Which brings us to the very closely related other half of of the problem: every single joke in the movie is basically the same thing, which consists of pointing at some reliable romcom trope, and loudly declaring, "isn't that a ridiculous, lazy cliché? Don't you want to laugh at how ridiculous and lazy it is? And isn't it ridiculous that we're doing it right now?" It's a decidedly limiting approach to comedy, one that can never make up its mind whether it wants to savagely satirise or lovingly embody the romcom formula, and either way it's pretty damn witless.

All that being said, the thing is... Isn't It Romantic is actually kind of great. Yeah, it operates entirely on the surface; yeah, it proudly announces that it knows the most obvious things about how movies work. But the sheer accumulation of perfect little details proves to be enough to keep the film charming and breezy, at least once Natalie has her accident. Every little molecule of the film has been planned and executed, from the severely clean and bright, just slightly too yellow lighting, to the incongruously nice, tailored clothes, to the totemic presence of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" on the soundtrack (a 2002 release that grounds the film even more precisely: it's not a '90s romcom, it's an outdated '90s throwback right at the moment that How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was poised to redirect the genre's energies). The fonts, the impossibly glassy offices, the loud line deliveries, everything is facing in the same direction, and it's hard not to find that overwhelming certainty in the exact specific thing that the film wants to be engaging.

Plus, it has a hell of a cast. Rebel Wilson, especially, is engaged with her material in a focused, energetic way that she hasn't demonstrated since all the way back in the first Pitch Perfect, in 2012; it's a gratifying and overdue reminder that she's a hell of a comic talent, able to spin lines in weird sardonic directions, and fantastic at dubious reaction shots. Most everybody surrounding her is having just as good of a time as she is: her Pitch Perfect co-star Adam Devine is a strong straightman, and Liam Hemsworth, playing the preposterously handsome himbo that Natalie quasi-reluctantly pursues in order to fulfill the narrative, has never once been this relaxed and open in a movie role. Even when the film's jokes are mostly the same single parodic note being hit over and over again, the cast approaches the material with such tangible delight at being allowed - encouraged! - to go fully silly and campy, that it becomes infectious and endearing through sheer force of will. Basically, the movie is charming enough to patch over the places where it can't decide how acidic it wants to be, a terrific hang-out movie no matter how much it is or isn't willing to also be a crowd-pleasing romcom.

On top of all of which, it has the uncommon decency to be just 88 minutes long, including credits. It's one thing for a film to recognise the limitations of its formula, but to recognise the limitations of an appropriate running time? I mean, that's an art.