It takes guts to lob something like I Feel Pretty into our vigilantly woke popular culture, which is (rightly) sensitive to issues of race, gender, and representation. Here is a romantic comedy about a woman (Amy Schumer) who works for a high-end cosmetics company and is deeply unhappy with her appearance; after getting knocked on the head during a SoulCycle accident, she suddenly believes she looks like a supermodel, even though nothing on the outside has changed.
I don’t have to elaborate on the pitfalls of this plot, which have been enumerated by the film’s negative reviews. And I understand the concerns, especially the claim that I Feel Pretty wants us to laugh at a supposedly unattractive woman carrying herself like a beauty queen. But my experience of the movie was different, and has a lot to do with the fact that I think Schumer is a gifted, conflicted comedian who, in movies like Trainwreck, is willing to have fun with her own complicated insecurities in ways that are satirical and cathartic.
At it best, I Feel Pretty works as shameless fierce send-up of contemporary beauty standards. When Renee, the Schumer character, confidently enters a bikini contest and proceeds to deliver a ridiculously over-the-top grind, she’s actually spoofing every stupid strip scene—and the beauty standards those enforce—that the movies have foisted upon us. Notice that the bikini contest audience doesn’t ridicule Renee, but comes around to cheer her fearlessness. Those few who don’t—the droolers—are the ones the movie wants us to laugh at.
Unlike Shallow Hal—the similarly themed, 2001 Farrelly brothers comedy with Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow (which I liked then but suspect wouldn’t hold up now)—I Feel Pretty makes the smart choice of never altering Renee’s appearance. The Renee we see at the start of the film is the same one we see throughout. If only the movie provided Schumer, the actor, with the same consistency. Unfortunately the narrative (I Feel Pretty is written and directed by the team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein) gets overly complicated in its second half, filtering Renee’s identity crisis through three separate subplots, each of which requires Schumer to play a slightly different character: her promotion at work by the squeaky-voiced CEO (Michelle Williams); her relationship with her friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps); and a romance with a guy who falls short of macho standards (Rory Scovel).
Only that last plot thread makes for a natural fit. The others clunkily march toward a horribly preachy climax. Of course that finale is safe and “inspiring,” with a message no one is likely to question. But Schumer—and I Feel Pretty—are at their best when they’re dangerous.