The last time that Amy Schumer starred as the female clad of a major romantic-comedy, her casting was treated as some kind of subversive act. And, to a certain extent, maybe it was. On the one hand, a blonde, white, able-bodied comedienne on 3,000 movie screens probably shouldn’t be hailed as the Jackie Robinson of meet-cutes just because she wasn’t Weird-Scienced by a focus group of horny teenage boys in a secret Hollywood lab (“I’m probably like 160 pounds right now and can catch a dick whenever I want,” Schumer memorably declared the month before “Trainwreck” opened). On the other hand, when some male critics are inspired to say things like “there’s no way she’d be an object of heated romantic interest in the real world,” it’s all too easy to appreciate why Schumer had to write her own role if she ever wanted to play the lead in a mainstream love story.
What a difference three years makes. For one thing, Schumer no longer has to write her own movies. For another, she now finds herself in the strange position of being told that she’s a bad ambassador for the slightly more inclusive beauty standards invited by her breakout performance. A modern-day fairy tale about an insecure New York woman who smacks her head during a Soul Cycle class and suddenly becomes convinced that she’s the most gorgeous person in the world, “I Feel Pretty” has already ignited a roman candle of internet rage by appearing to suggest that Schumer is grotesque enough to be the subject of her own “Shallow Hal.”
In 2015, Schumer was “too ugly” to play a hot girl; in 2018, she’s “too hot” to play an ugly one. Each of those accusations is myopic and crass in its own way, but Schumer’s open-hearted and occasionally funny new film minimizes them both by insisting that you’re the only person who has the power to see yourself clearly.
Not exactly the first movie that’s ever dared to suggest that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, “I Feel Pretty” at least has the decency to be honest about how far that wisdom can take you. For starters, Schumer’s character isn’t a train wreck this time around. By most standards, Renee Bennett is actually doing pretty well for herself. She’s got a decent job doing web stuff for the fancy LeClair fashion empire, making okay money from the decrepit Chinatown office she’s forced to share with her only co-worker (Adrian Martinez, hilarious in a role that amounts to 20 different ways of saying “fuck my life”). She’s got two best friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips), which is a major indulgence for anyone in their mid-thirties. And she’s got plenty of red wine to drink with them, which helps take the edge off the fact that she doesn’t love the way she looks.
The movie doesn’t share the perspective that Renee is a hideous sea hag unworthy of human love, nor does it encourage us to see her that way. On the contrary, writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (who have scripted rom-coms like “Never Been Kissed” and “How to Be Single”) focus on the fact that Renee feels awful, even if her insecurities are mostly self-inflicted.
The most effective, relatable scenes find her alone at home in front of the bedroom mirror. She obsesses over her supposed ugliness at the expense of her prouder qualities. The fabulist tone helps blur the line between the way people look at Renee and whatever she’s afraid they might see, the entire first act of the film swollen with the invisible (but mortifying) numbness that follows a novocaine injection. There’s an air of unreality to how she makes a baby cry in a supermarket, or tries not to embarrass herself as she rents bike shoes from a nonplussed Sasheer Zamata. As sad is it is when she tosses a coin into a fountain and wishes to be beautiful, the “Big” scene instructs us not to take everything about the movie at face value. Renee’s not too heavy for spin class, she just happens to ride on a broken bike. (For a movie that doubles as a feature-length Soul Cycle commercial, “I Feel Pretty” sure makes the cultish exercise phenomenon seem very unsafe.)
After conking her head, Renee becomes irrepressibly confident, as though she damaged the part of her brain that generated self-doubt. We don’t ever see what this sexier version of herself looks like in her mind’s eye, and that’s because it doesn’t matter. “I’ve always wondered what it feels like to be undeniably pretty,” Renee says to a workout buddy played by model Emily Ratajkowski, and now she knows. She looks the same, but she’s no longer denying it. From there, the movie becomes a diverting body-switch comedy with only one body, our emboldened heroine suddenly high on life as she flashes up her wardrobe, browbeats a bearded stranger (Rory Scovel) into going on a date with her, and pounces on her dream job as the receptionist at LeClair HQ. It’s a pay cut, but she wants to be seen.
Often as thin as you might expect from a movie that revolves around body weight, “I Feel Pretty” spends most of its running time flitting from one sitcom scenario to another. Schumer acts like she’s possessed by her childhood self, in command of the material but absent some of the searching thoughtfulness that Jennifer Garner brought to “13 Going on 30.” It’s tough to build a real story around a teflon character, and so Kohn and Silverstein delegate most of the heavy lifting to the supporting cast, all of whom convincingly help sell the idea that Renee’s newfound confidence is enough to change her fortunes. And all of whom have insecurities of their own.
This is the part when we pause to talk about Michelle Williams, who plays fashion heiress Avery LeClair like a live-action anime character. Dropping an all-time performance into an average movie, Williams wears an ice-cold Miranda Priestly vibe as a shield to deflect attention from her character’s squeaky little doll voice. It’s a symptom of terrible self-doubt, one that leaves Avery so preoccupied with how she sounds that she doesn’t bother to think about what she says. Every line slays. “I thought I smelled animal products,” she coos to Renee upon finding her in the cafeteria. Also, she’s wearing a dress embroidered with golden retrievers at the time. The race for Best Supporting Actress starts here.
Avery’s obsession with the “negative” parts of herself typifies a movie in which there is no villain, and everyone is their own worst enemy. The clarity of that idea holds “I Feel Pretty” together through all the sweaty plotting of its second half, the limpness of its romantic storyline, and the half-assed way it attempts to tie everything together with a climactic product launch so ridiculous it makes the ending of “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” look like a vérité documentary. Schumer’s latest comedy could have used a few more polishes — it’s a little flabby towards the backend, even if its star is totally fine just as she is — but it never slackens in its conviction that the world reflects how you feel about yourself, or in how empowering that can be if you come at it from the right angle.
“I Feel Pretty” opens theatrically on Friday, April 20.
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