When the trailer for I Feel Pretty, the latest star vehicle for Amy Schumer, was released in February, it made some viewers scrunch up their faces. What was this movie trying to do, really? The conceit, as it’s revealed, is that Schumer is a woman plumbing the depths of low self-esteem, ignored by bartenders and humiliated by retail salespeople, who dreams of one day being “undeniably pretty.” A gnarly bang on the head during spin class leads her to suddenly believe that she’s gorgeous, even though she looks exactly the same, and by the end of it, she’s dancing with awkward abandon on a barroom stage in short shorts and a rolled-up white T-shirt that accentuates her tummy pudge. Out of context, the humor seemed to some to be off at best, or downright insulting at worst. A typical response from the detractors read like this one: “Did Amy Schumer really think a movie about a woman needing a blow to the head to feel confident in her body would uplift people?”
The answer is, yes, though within the context of the full movie rather than a trailer, I Feel Pretty has more nuance than the trailer suggests. Unfortunately, those shades of meaning get mangled up in nonsensical plot contrivances and tired running jokes. If it’s offensive, it’s because of its blandness, not its political incorrectness.
The comedian plays Renee, a New York City woman working for the website of the fictional Lily LeClaire beauty line from the dingy basement of a Chinatown shop alongside her colleague, Mason (Adrian Martinez). The reason they’re forced to labor underground, apparently, is that they’re not conventionally attractive, while the rest of the company’s gorgeous employees operate out of its glamorous Midtown headquarters. One night, frustrated by a world that renders her invisible because of her looks, and inspired by watching the Zoltar scene from Big on TV, she runs outside to the nearest park fountain to throw in a coin and make a wish to become as beautiful as co-star Emily Ratajkowski. Soon enough, she has her SoulCycle incident, believes she’s no longer a nottie, and things begin to look up. Renee struts her stuff around the city, proclaiming her own beauty at every moment she gets (“Guys, I’m a Kardashian! One of the Jenner ones.”), much to the confusion of everyone around her. This sudden boost of self-esteem lands her a date with a befuddled nice guy she meets at the laundromat (Rory Scovel) and a new job as the receptionist at Lily LeClaire.
We soon learn that Lily herself (Lauren Hutton) is trying to make over the company’s elitist image by rolling out a more affordable line of products in collaboration with (cue product placement) Target, and her daughter Avery (Michelle Williams, terrific in a rare comedic role) is struggling to learn how to market the line without appearing condescending to middle-class consumers. Avery finds a lifeline in Renee, who impresses her by being a perfect specimen of exactly the regular, down-to-earth demographic they’re trying to reach. Renee quickly moves from the front desk toward a corner office, making the products more accessible and getting invited to accompany her boss on a big sales pitch in Boston.
Though the movie’s primary subject is female body image, it’s not just Renee who feels pressure from societal norms. Renee’s love interest marvels at her assertiveness, wishing he could be more like her. Though rendered as a mediocre, if pleasant enough, white man, he has none of the confidence of a mediocre white man. Instead, he is embarrassed to be a Zumba enthusiast who is also very much in touch with his feelings. Meanwhile Avery, despite being rail thin, bleached blond, and eternally chic, is in some ways as fragile as Renee, though for different reasons. Despite having a J.D. and an MBA from Wharton, she hates her mousy, high-pitched voice and lacks the swagger that comes naturally to her brother. When flustered and embarrassed, she calls herself horrifying names, like “dumb bitch.”
It’s this parallel between Renee and those other characters that may not please some of Schumer’s more ardent critics, those who feel as though the self-deprecating digs that frequently show up in her work are the equivalent of first-world problems. As she’s ascended in Hollywood, many have scoffed at the idea that an average-size, blond, cis white woman would dare skewer society’s expectations of beauty as she’s done in Inside Amy Schumer sketches like “Size 12” (the premise of which is basically identical to a scene in I Feel Pretty, in which a saleslady tells Renee that she’ll have to go online to find her size) and “New Body.” The problem with such critiques is they ignore the fact that as a leading lady, Schumer remains an outlier—by Hollywood’s impossibly high standards, she doesn’t “fit in.” Of course, in the real world the rest of us occupy it’s a totally different playing field, and there’s nothing wrong with questioning her more tone-deaf attempts to tackle this subject. But it’s not incidental that the writing team of Marc Silverstein and Abby Kohn (Never Been Kissed, He’s Just Not That Into You) plopped Renee in the land of models and beauty product designers, and not say, corporate law.
Unfortunately, Schumer has already made this point in a much funnier and more biting manner in her critically lauded episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer.” In that riff on Reginald Rose’s classic teleplay-turned-movie, a group of male jurors must decide unanimously whether she’s “fuckable” enough to be on TV, as the extended skit brilliantly peels back all the layers of misogyny that have dogged her rise from stand-up comedian to TV, and now, movie star. In I Feel Pretty, the comedy is flatter, with the same two or three jokes playing out over and over, such as: Renee says something about how hot she is, whoever’s in the room looks at her as though she’s lost her mind, and then they shrug and continue with the scene. Her character’s evolution is odd, too. After her head bump, she’s suddenly lost all career ambition and is content to become a receptionist at Lily LeClaire and nothing else, for some reason. (She rises through the ranks only by accident.) And she slowly creeps from endearing to asshole as the film progresses, ignoring or putting down other average-looking people, including her best friends, played by Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant—another instance in which the script ignores logic for the sake of ginning up half-hearted conflict where it doesn’t need it.
The brightest spot is Williams, whose meek but powerful Avery could’ve easily been an evil, stuck-up antagonist but instead becomes an ally. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t pit women against each other but rather has them build one another up. Yet her storyline is sadly undercooked. Also undercooked is a hard examination of how beauty brands contribute to society’s screwy expectations of beauty, particularly in an awkward motivational speech that doubles as a shill for the Lily LeClaire brand.
Schumer herself has expressed reservations about that scene, and in fact she’s been addressing all the premature backlash that has accompanied the film throughout her press tour. “I’m not playing the ugly duckling,” she told RogerEbert.com. “I’m just playing a girl with low self-esteem.” And it’s true: I Feel Pretty isn’t about a physical transformation but a mental one—an admirable premise to explore. It’s just too bad it couldn’t give as dramatic a makeover to its jokes.