There are some good ideas and thoughtful insights buried in the very messy I Feel Pretty, a comedy about female self-image that is unsure of its own identity. Directed by screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, the duo behind such mediocrities as Never Been Kissed, He’s Just Not That Into You, How to Be Single, and The Vow, I Feel Pretty has the advantage of starring Amy Schumer but the disadvantage of not knowing what to do with her.
Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a schlubby, low-confidence Manhattanite who works for the online division of a high-end cosmetics line called Lily LeClaire. The early scenes establish Renee’s place in the social hierarchy. She’s slightly tubby and plain-faced, so she’s ignored by bartenders and treated with disdain by beautiful women. People react to her as if her physical appearance were quite a bit more grotesque than it is, but I guess that’s movies for you. Amy Schumer isn’t “ugly” by any measure, and while she’s more overweight than the average movie star, she’s less overweight than the average American.
Anyway, a bonk on the head during spin class produces a variation on the old sitcom amnesia device. Renee remembers who she is, but now she sees herself as thin, toned, and gorgeous. She’s as giddy as Cinderella over her miraculous change, believing actual magic must be involved. She genuinely believes that even her best friends, Jane (Busy Philipps) and Vivian (Aidy Bryant), won’t recognize her anymore. They do, of course, but they think Renee’s “I’m a different person now” mania refers to a new sense of inner beauty and that she’s just being kind of crazy about it.
Now Renee begins to act with the confidence of a beautiful woman. Where she was once unsure about applying to be the front-of-house receptionist for Lily LeClaire (a position normally reserved for up-and-coming models), now she boldly submits her application … and gets the job when her self-assurance and down-to-earth personality win over the CEO, Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams), a baby-voiced fashionista who struggles to be taken seriously. When a man at the dry cleaners, Ethan (Rory Scovel), asks Renee what her number is — meaning her place in line — she assumes he means phone number and submits to a date with him, assuring him that he needn’t be intimidated by her gorgeousness. On their date, she capriciously enters a bar’s bikini contest, Ethan watching in trepidation as he waits for her to be humiliated. But when she loses, she doesn’t care. She knows she’s beautiful, and these things are all politics anyway.
You can see the point of all this (and if you can’t, Kohn and Silverstein underline it many times). Renee’s physical appearance hasn’t changed; all that’s changed is her attitude, and that’s enough to make others treat her differently. We can all see ourselves as beautiful! But the message is clouded by the fact that Renee’s greatest career ambition is to be a receptionist — a receptionist for a cosmetics company. Her ditzy devotion to the job and to her idol Avery LeClaire is pathetic, not inspiring. It’s never clear who Renee really is as a person. She’s oblivious one moment, self-aware (and very Schumerian) the next; compassionate in one scene, haughty in another.
Conceptually, the movie is half-baked. I mentioned the amnesia device before (and yes, Renee’s delusion ends with another bump to the noggin). The whole thing would work better if she lost her memory, too, and assumed she’d always been pretty. As it is, she remembers that she used to be “unattractive” and insecure, remembers that her life used to be entirely different. She accounts for the change because she believes there was magic in that spin class or in the coin she tossed in the fountain after watching Big — and that just doesn’t make any sense. She should be making a much bigger deal of the fact that her physical appearance was radically transformed, going on TV with pictures of her old self and saying, “Look at this miracle!” The movie keeps refusing to let anyone call her out — to simply say, “YOU LOOK THE SAME AS YOU ALWAYS DID, STOP BEING INSANE!” The longer it continues, the less I can buy it (and I was having trouble buying it to begin with).
The story follows the predictable beats (she turns her back on her friends; messes things up with Ethan; apologizes to them all in a dramatic public fashion; etc.) and offers only occasional laughs. Too much of the humor is centered around Renee saying, “You probably think I’m too beautiful to [fill in the blank],” and the other person saying, “No, that wasn’t my concern…” By far the most interesting person in the movie is Michelle Williams as the makeup queen, who’s having trouble accepting the idea of making an affordable line of cosmetics to sell at Target, and who pronounces the H in “Kohl’s.” Eager to impress the company’s founder, her grandmother (Lauren Hutton), Avery presents herself as an assured businesswoman but harbors insecurities that pop up amusingly from time to time. Renee’s character arc, well intentioned as it is, lacks the spark of genius that Avery’s has. It’s a shame to think of the missed opportunities — a movie about the way attractive people are treated differently from regulars could have been so much more than a pretty face.