I Feel Pretty
It's trying to be an empowering comedy, but Amy Schumer's latest film trades in mixed messages.
April 19, 2018
When Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) glances in the mirror, her own loathing stares back. She hates what she sees. She hates how she's viewed by the world. Painstakingly trying to follow YouTube hair and makeup tutorials, she yearns to meet society's beauty standards. "I've always wondered what it's like to be undeniably pretty," Renee tells a model friend (Emily Ratajkowski) at the gym. When her dream receptionist job is advertised — at the Fifth Avenue head office of her cosmetics brand employer, a step up from her current Chinatown workplace — she's certain she won't get it due to her appearance. Wishing for a permanent makeover, Renee even throws a penny into a fountain during a storm in desperation. That doesn't work, but then she hits her head during cycling class and suddenly loves her reflection.
In I Feel Pretty, the twist is right there in the title — Renee's appearance doesn't change, just her perception. Now certain that she's the total package, she oozes confidence, takes risks and enjoys the life-altering changes that come with her boosted self-esteem. She not only gets the job, but gets to work with her idol, company CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams). She assumes that the kindly Ethan (Rory Scovel) is hitting on her at the dry cleaners, asks him out and they start dating. Charting Renee's transformation, seasoned rom-com writers-turned-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (He's Just Not That Into You, The Vow, How to be Single) craft a typical "make a wish" flick, but set their sights on body image. The film even includes a glimpse of Big, in case the Tom Hanks-starring '80s hit didn't instantly spring to mind.
Helming their first feature, Kohn and Silverstein have a very specific aim: discarding society's narrow concept of hotness, showing that a little self-belief goes a long way, and fashioning an empowering comedy as a result. An important goal, it's one that Schumer has spent her stand-up and on-screen careers championing. It's there in her comic routine, in countless Inside Amy Schumer sketches and in Trainwreck as well, but I Feel Pretty doesn't belong in the same company. Here, there's an enormous gap between the film's intentions and its execution. Specifically, the view the movie celebrates doesn't quite match its contents.
Trying to have its body-positive cake and eat it too, I Feel Pretty says it's what's on the inside that counts while demonstrating the opposite. The film presents a character who's only successful and happy when she thinks she's attractive, and when she thinks that the world agrees — and while viewers can see that Renee still looks the same, it invites them to laugh when she acts like she's a supermodel. You could argue that the movie chuckles with rather than at her, but she's rightly glowing with pride instead of giggling. You could also suggest that the film is making fun of Renee's over-the-top behaviour, which involves sidelining her lifelong best buds (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps) and generally acting like a diva. However, the number of times that another character reacts like Renee isn't physically all that paints a very different picture.
Take one particularly problematic scene as an example. On her first date with Ethan, Renee decides to enter a seedy bar's bikini contest. Ethan suggests that she doesn't really fit the part, doing so with subtlety. But the MC doesn't share his tact, appearing shocked when Renee takes to the stage, and later describing her as "the kind of woman who could handle herself in a knife fight". The way the scene is staged and shot reinforces his view, encouraging the audience to guffaw heartily at the premise (because a woman who doesn't look like a conventional swimsuit model baring some flesh is apparently funny?) while also offering up plenty of incredulous reactions from the on-screen audience. Sure, everyone eventually appreciates Renee's gusto, complete with cheers and applause. But if what's on the outside doesn't matter in the film's opinion, why milk the situation for easy laughs first?
That's I Feel Pretty's whole approach. Served up in bright and shiny packaging, and layered over a formulaic story, the movie's mixed messages don't end there, although it's never mean or ugly — just muddled. The idea that Schumer isn't desirable is ridiculous, but the comedian is actually at her best when she's earnestly engaging with Renee's feelings of inadequacy. It's a side she doesn't often show on-screen, and it suits her. Williams' rare foray into comic territory is similarly impressive, with the acclaimed actress playing the more exaggerated part, illustrating that everyone has insecurities and stealing every scene she's in. Indeed, as proved the case with Tilda Swinton in Trainwreck, Schumer is upstaged by her co-star. Well, that and the film's superficial nature. A flick about peering beneath the surface, I Feel Pretty ultimately ignores its own advice.