There is a movie to be made about the harsh realities of a superficial world that showers opportunity upon the physically attractive and shuns those deemed undesirable. A movie that acknowledges the pain and self-doubt that must be overcome before you can truly embrace the traits that distinguish you from the collective. A movie that cleverly pokes fun at the artifice of a consumer culture designed to exploit our insecurities. Unfortunately, that movie is not I Feel Pretty.
Ostensibly a comedy, the latest offering from the writer-director team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein offers very few laughs, and even less insight into the stigma of imperfection. Amy Schumer delivers a fearless performance that often accentuates her less flattering physical features, but she can’t save a premise so ill-conceived that it actually celebrates the human frailty it wishes to condemn.
Mostly, I Feel Pretty is pretty lazy. We’re talking Sandler-esque levels of laziness. Genuine character growth is replaced by head trauma, while comic construction is replaced by extended scenes of pointless mugging for the camera. Schumer’s inherent likeability is tested by a stupefying plot that requires her to be increasingly cruel to everyone who cares about her. Finally, just to make sure you understand all of the emotional epiphanies in play, Schumer delivers a closing summation that ties up more loose threads than the House of Woodcock (see: Phantom Thread).
Deconstructing comedy is a thankless task. What makes one person giggle will likely make another person groan. It’s best, then, to sidestep any debate on the comic merits of I Feel Pretty. That this reviewer finds it a sucking chasm of humor doesn’t mean that some viewers won’t find it hilarious. What can’t be argued, however, is the lazy premise at the foundation of I Feel Pretty and the ineptitude with which it is realized.
Ironically, the first act takes great pains to introduce the suffocating insecurity that plagues Renee Bennett (Schumer).With her gargantuan size 9.5 shoes (“Double wide… like the trailer”) and her six-pack abs that more closely resemble an entire keg, Renee is an average girl living in a beautiful girl world. She even schleps beauty products for Lily LeClaire; a cosmetic conglomerate that perpetuates the limited societal standard of what constitutes beauty and worth for women.
She might occasionally join her equally nondescript friends Jane (Busy Philipps) and Vivian (Aidy Bryant) for an evening of booze and gab, but Renee usually spends her evenings alone, drowning her sorrows in a pint of ice cream and dilapidated television re-runs. It all changes at one fateful Spin class when a malfunctioning bike dumps Renee onto her head, implanting the delusion that she is the most beautiful girl in the world.
Yeah… that’s the premise.
After this encouraging, albeit overlong opening that promises something more substantive, I Feel Pretty disintegrates into an uninspired rom-com/farce hybrid. The genuine pain cultivated by Renee is squandered, as she transforms into a newly empowered super vixen; a caricature of the judgmental snootiness that she despises. She treats Jane and Vivian like accessories, even humiliating them while they’re on a rare date (with boys!). Older women and the genetically disadvantaged are shooed aside by Renee as she ascends the power ladder at Lily LeClaire and becomes a consultant for their new product line.
Renee’s cruelty is the first critical error made by Kohn and Silverstein in their directorial debut (they previously wrote Schumer’s equally shambolic How to Be Single). Their intention to deliver an uplifting ‘image positive’ message for women is counteracted by Renee’s dramatic shift in persona. She doesn’t gradually become a monster corrupted by her intoxicating newfound confidence, but instead, immediately transforms into the very embodiment of shallow snobbery. The overriding message becomes one not of empowerment, but a tacit acknowledgement of the ugliness that dwells inside all of us. It seems the only thing that prevented Renee from being a terrible person was the physical attractiveness necessary to back up her insults.
Even more unsavory is that Schumer’s Rubenesque figure is the film’s sole source of comedy. Still laboring under the delusion of her concussion-induced beauty, she packs her ample backside into skimpy shorts, pours water over her breasts, and prostitutes herself before a group of leering men at a bikini contest. As Renee gyrates before the horrified stares of the other buxom contestants, you realize how dishonest I Feel Pretty truly is. This is a film that explicitly implores the audience to stop laughing at those with so-called “physical imperfections”, only to use those same imperfections to generate… laughter.
This sort of passive-aggressiveness should come as no surprise from a film as lazy as I Feel Pretty. This laziness is particularly obvious in a later scene, in which Renee takes Jane and Vivian to an exclusive Lily LeClaire product launch party. When Jane and Vivian fall short on the hotness scale, Renee is the only member of the trio allowed to enter the exalted ‘back room’. Do we get to see Renee, surrounded by beautiful people enjoying themselves, sitting alone and regretting her decision to jettison her friends? Do we see the existential pain brewing inside of her?
Nope. The scene just ends with Renee going into the back room while her friends stand outside dumbfounded. She learns nothing. At least until it’s time for the next bonk on the head, when she can be released from her egomaniacal rampage and directly announce the film’s true theme; “There is no magic” when it comes to self-acceptance. We waited two hours for that?
And this doesn’t even take into account the travesty inflicted upon the great Michelle Williams (as ‘Avery LeClaire’), who is forced to use a voice so artificially squeaky that it sounds like she’s been huffing helium. Oh, and Renee has a heartfelt romance with some guy named Ethan (Rory Scovel), who might be the most neutered love interest in rom-com history.
The only people who won’t be bored by I Feel Pretty are those whom it offends. It’s a gross miscalculation that might mean well, but fails to balance the sharpness and delicacy necessary to tackle the emotional carnage wrought by self-hatred. That it forgets to make us laugh is the final insult.