In the weeks leading up to its premiere—a promo run that saw Amy Schumer doing her best to get ahead of what might be a public excoriation—there’s been heavy criticism about the premise of I Feel Pretty, fueled more so by publicity and perception than the film’s content. The movie itself isn’t all that bad. Schumer, in fact, does her best with the given material. What irks me most isn’t her portrayal of this character, who displays a cornucopia of insecurities, but the story itself—regressive and overly simplistic, ostensibly written for an imaginary woman who lacks nuance, confidence and emotional maturity, eager to bathe in the warm and restorative waters of empowerment aphorisms and SoulCycle, and come out shiny, clean, and buoyed by self-love.
The princess in this flawed fairytale is Schumer’s Renee Barrett, a woman whose entire character is defined by her dreadfully low self-esteem. She works in the basement of a building in Chinatown at the online division of cosmetics giant Lily LeClare; occasionally, she hangs out with her friends (Busy Phillips and Aidy Bryant, twin rays of sunshine), and that’s about it. What concerns Renee the most is conventional beauty and her perceived lack thereof; she’s the kind of girl who wears Spanx every day and undresses in front of the mirror when she gets home from work, tears rolling down her cheeks as she stares at her hideous visage. One night, she tosses a penny into a fountain, wishing to be beautiful. The next day, she falls off a SoulCycle bike, bonks her head, and, when she looks in the mirror, perceives herself as such.
What follows is a series of set pieces highlighting Renee’s newfound confidence—exuberance bordering on cocky—and the baffling way a world reacts to a woman imbued with the chutzpah of a mediocre white man. She bullies Ethan (an utterly charming Rory Scovel) into taking her out on a date while waiting in line at the dry cleaners to pick up a sangria-sullied white sweater. She frees herself from Lily St. Clare’s workplace purgatory and lands a plum spot as receptionist—a pay cut!—making her the face of an office stocked with sylphlike supermodels.
Professionally, Renee starts to excel. Lily St. Clare’s CEO, Avery (a baby-voiced and brilliant Michelle Williams, the actor not the singer), begrudgingly taps her to help with the marketing of a lower-priced cosmetics line to be sold at Target, aimed at the average woman. Her confidence begins to alienate her friends because she turns into an asshole. Eventually, she hits her head again and the spell is broken, but by the end, she’s learned her lesson. It doesn’t matter that she looks the same way she always did. Now that she believes in herself, anything is possible.
It’s worth noting that the speech, which uses the language of corporate feminism and empowerment to shill beauty products, is one of the most disingenuous parts of the entire movie—a point that Schumer addressed in an interview with Vulture:
That scene gave me pause too. I love this movie a lot, and [writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein) were really gracious to let me collaborate on the script. But that last scene needs to tie into the plot. In that moment, Renee’s being sincere, she really wants to lift up the people she’s talking to, and not just inflate the company’s stock or anything. But yeah, I would’ve loved if maybe it didn’t have to tie in and mention the brand, the line she’s working with. All I can say is that I understand that objection, and I agree with you.
Self-confidence and the lack thereof is an evergreen issue and the body-positivity movement hasn’t completely erased low self-esteem, but I found myself wondering who this movie was for. The message isn’t bad in theory (love yourself and you can do anything), but it’s crammed into a messy, retrograde plot that does a disservice to any nibble of authenticity one might be able to find. Not all of it is terrible and some of it, when Schumer is allowed to fully inhabit her shtick, comes off funny.
There are relatable moments, too: anyone who has ever been intimidated by a boutique fitness class seemingly full of flexible Instagram influencers will relate to Renee’s panic at her first SoulCycle class. Renee’s insecurities are, on some level, very real. But we’re expected to believe that she’s the kind of person society deems irretrievably unattractive and that, I’m sorry to say, is not the case. The trouble is that none of the characters are fleshed out, making it hard to root for anyone. Michelle Williams, as Avery, is a tremulous baby deer and very, very funny; her icy perfection seems like it would be a foil for Renee’s more folksy charm, but really, nothing happens there. As Renee’s friends, Bryant and Phillips are just there to prove that a woman as immature and obsessed as Renee is still likable enough to even have friends.
Much of the movie’s implied laughs come from the way the world reacts to a possibly concussed Renee who thinks she’s hot. On her first date with Ethan, Renee enters a bikini contest, clad in jean shorts and a white t shirt, pulled up and looped through the neckline. Though her performance ultimately wins over the crowd (because of her audacity? We’ll never know); to start there are boos, stunned silence, and, most confusingly, Ethan’s reaction, which starts off mortified and ends strangely proud. Is he embarrassed because he thinks Renee—a woman he’s ostensibly attracted to—is not nearly hot enough to hold her own? Is he mortified because she’s making a fool out of herself? Does he wish he just stayed home? Who can say! It’s not clear what we’re supposed to make of Renee’s illusory hotness because everyone around her thinks her behavior is a massive, elaborate joke, treating an average, blonde, white woman as a hideous monster. The question is, who’s laughing?