On Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker special, one of his more memorable bits describes our general unhappiness with ourselves. “We live in a society where no one likes who the f*ck they are. Nobody likes who the f*ck they are — except fat black women. Fat black women don’t give a f*ck what you think. She’s going out on Friday night. She got an outfit on. That shit match. She’s like, ‘I’m sexy. I am sex-y, yes, I am! I am the sexiest motherf*cker here tonight!'”
The plot of the new Amy Schumer vehicle I Feel Pretty, written and directed by rom-com veterans Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, is that fashion-and-beauty-obsessed Renee Bennett (Schumer) begins the movie as your average, hating-the-f*ck-she-is American, but, through the magic of high concept, becomes the equivalent of Chris Rock’s proverbial fat black woman — who knows she’s sexy and doesn’t care what you think. It relies on body-swap movie tropes to ask what it’d be like if you could become your ideal self through simple self-delusion, a sort of Shallow Hal turned inward.
I Free Pretty is surprisingly resonant for a high concept light comedy, offering all the catharsis of watching someone truly discover herself and own it, as well as the awkwardness and pain of watching someone needlessly tear herself down and self-sabotage. Have you ever been in a room with someone while they list off all their perceived inadequacies? It’s the most uncomfortable feeling in the world. Or experienced the magnetism of someone supremely comfortable in their own skin? It’s wonderful. I Feel Pretty offers both, and it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster.
That’s an impressive range for a film that’s otherwise a pretty traditional rom-com (from the writers of Never Been Kissed, The Vow, and How to Be Single, among others). Renee Bennett works at a fashion magazine in New York — Lily LeClair, run by lank-haired LeClair heir Avery LeClair, played by Michelle Williams. Renee does all the usual rom-com stuff — works in fashion, has a meet-cute with a guy, who loves her just the way she is (Ethan, played by Rory Scovel, at a dry cleaners), and puts a bow on her character’s personal journey with an emotional public speech in the third act.
Conventional elements that might otherwise be a drawback here may help make some of the story’s natural awkwardness more palatable. I Feel Pretty does not skimp on the cringe humor, both when Renee is self-deluding as her “beautiful” self and when she’s self-sabotaging as her “ugly” self. Throughout, Schumer’s performance is the story’s bedrock. In a lot of ways, I Feel Pretty is her Elf moment, grounding a high concept story with a big but believable performance as a charming, self-deluded oddball who sees the world as much more sparkly than it is — someone who sees the world the way we wish it was. It’s a tough balancing act, requiring her to celebrate her body even as she uses it for a punchline and has it juxtaposed with impossible standards, like Emily Ratajkowski in a supporting role. There are shades of the old Chris Farley/Patrick Swayze Chippendales sketch, only in this case the laughs contain pain. Unlike in the Farley sketch, the implication here is that all a woman needs to do to make her body joke fodder is to not look like a flawless and Photoshopped supermodel. You laugh, but it hurts a little.
I Feel Pretty‘s knack for snappy dialogue carries it through some of the more cringeworthy and conventional elements. One example: when Dave Atell has a cameo, Ethan starts to tell Atell’s character tell a long story that the latter cuts short with, “Whoa, I don’t need a podcast.”
Like all rom-com heroines, Renee has a squad, Jane and Vivian, played by Busy Philipps (who’s married to co-director Silverstein) and Aidy Bryant. The usual rom-com format would require a wacky best friend to give blunt advice and be generally without shame, but in this case, Renee is the blunt shameless one. And so her friends… are just sort of there. They’re present as a standard rom-com element without having much of a function in the story. Renee and the girls have a falling out and a reconciliation, but when Renee shouts out her friends and how important they are in the third act, it doesn’t really land. It feels like a vestigial rom-com element, the screenwriting equivalent of beavers building a dam because that’s just what beavers do. They’re just so used to writing a “Friends are everything!” moment that they do here, even when the story isn’t really about that.
I Feel Pretty wastes an even bigger opportunity with Renee’s journey through the fashion world. She ends up getting a job as Lily LeClair’s receptionist, becoming the token “normie” who educates sheltered heiress Avery LeClair (who’s sort of like Anna Wintour meets an Olsen twin) on what non-heiresses and supermodels actually look for in a makeup. I Feel Pretty‘s skewering of the fashion world provides some of its funniest moments, and Williams’ performance as the squeaky-voiced Avery, desperate to escape her bubble and prove herself as a businesswoman, might be her best role. At the same time, this is a movie about impossible beauty standards whose protagonist works in an industry partly responsible for creating those standards. But even in the belly of the fashion and beauty product beast, Renee never once grapples with fashion’s culpability. Given a genuine opportunity to speak directly to the beauty industry, the best Renee does is… stump for cheaper makeup and better applicator brushes. Really? That‘s what you have to say to the people who’ve convinced you to feel shitty about yourself?