The most radical shot in the new Amy Schumer comedy I Feel Pretty is a mid-thirties woman staring at herself. In close-up, the star’s face fills the frame: no glamour lighting, no genetically blessed cheekbones, no modern day digital retouching smoothing out the creases. It’s what most people see when they look in the mirror, yet Hollywood rarely reflects it back unless the female character is a comic punchline hurled at a recoiling Zach Galifianakis.
Schumer’s Renee Bennett, an online service rep for a luxury make-up brand, is fixated on beauty. She’s a true believer who spends hours painting another face over her face. I Feel Pretty isn’t a slob-to-chic makeover movie: From the beginning, her hair is perfectly curled, her Spanx hoisted, her outfits stylishly chosen, her nights spent studying YouTube cosmetics tutorials. There’s a false gag when Renee panics about visiting the corporate office carrying a purse that’s a Bed Bath & Beyond shopping bag – c’mon, she wears heels to send emails in a basement! – which works against Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein’s point that this is a woman doing everything she can to look good.
And it’s still not enough. The problem with being plain is that people won’t tell you, like walking around with spinach tattooed on your teeth. Culturally, we’re supposed to pretend that if we asked a hundred strangers to pick between Schumer and Gigi Hadid, it’d be a toss-up. Quietly, women like Renee know the ugly truth. Evasion is crazy-making, which is why we see New Yorkers treating our heroine normally yet she interprets everything as an insult. Even a crying baby hates her face – extreme paranoia from a woman so insecure, she lies about her shoe size. The movie doesn’t back her up, except to agree that inside her head, things look awful.
Which is partially why I Feel Pretty is a tough watch: It shouts the secrets we aren’t supposed to say. In the second act, Renee gets conked on the head and wakes up believing she’s beautiful. “A Kardashian!” she beams. To us, she looks exactly the same, and the handsome idea is that self-confidence makes her beautiful. The lady nearly wins a bikini contest out of moxie. But the film’s attitude toward her shifts. Now, when Renee struts into a room, we see people shudder. A girl in an elevator is so repulsed by having to share four cubic feet of air with her, she rolls her eyes. Her tepid, but charming first date does a spit-take every time Renee brags about being hot. Beauty makes her ugly, vapid, obnoxious. The movie becomes cruel, spliced with bracingly glorious scenes where Schumer, the opposite of every screenplay girl who’s “beautiful but doesn’t know it,” pronounces herself “perfect.”
If this came out two decades ago, it’d feel revolutionary. Back then, the bravest beauty standards comedy beauty hailed Jack Black for willingly bone Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, who mostly just got to look like, well, Gwyneth Paltrow. We’re still not really ready for an ordinary woman to play an ordinary romantic comedy lead, which is why even Schumer’s attempts have come at the genre askew.
The stand-up comic-turned-movie star would have been a pre-teen when the back pages of Seventeen Magazine peddled $12 diet tip booklets that were manuals for anorexia. (One advised girls to imagine dead mice on their food so they wouldn’t eat it.) Those were quietly banned by the time Dove hired all shapes of women to sell body lotion in their underwear. Since then, more types of faces and figures are allowed to sell lipstick – literal lip-service to the cultural conversation about inclusion. There are kids now who have always been alive in a time where corporations made room for normals, an idea I Feel Pretty‘s fictional cosmetics millionaire Avery LeClaire (a phenomenal Michelle Williams) is just absorbing.
That generation might see I Feel Pretty as a step backwards. (I hope they do.) But that Nineties pre-teen is still inside Schumer and you see her childishness in pre-concussion Renee’s belief that it’s totally possible to swap out her mom’s thighs for Miss Hadid’s if she’d just commit to SoulCycle – if only she’d just learn all the secrets and behave. Her magic moment is inspired by watching another 12-year-old make a wish in Big. Honest, adult conversations about beauty continue to be difficult (“I love my curvy wife!”) especially in an empowerment era where everyone says the correct koans about acceptance while digitally glossing their Instagrams. Insecurity was already painful. Now people are insecure about feeling insecure. From the way I Feel Pretty shudders as Renee’s new boyfriend Ethan (Rory Scovel) discovers an unphotogenic picture she’s hidden out of embarrassment, insecurity is practically a sin.
But everyone is insecure. Ethan worries he’s not macho; Avery frets that her voice is too squeaky; even Avery’s gorgeous, rich brother (Tom Hopper) is nervous over the notion that girls just date him for his fortune. Only Schumer’s character really wrestles with her shame until she stares at her true self in the mirror and sobs. We’d rather look away. It’s easier to applaud cute girls who claim they love to eat pizza – #cheatday #luvmybelly #happyfatty – while wearing a size 2 crop top. Real ugliness, the kind that comes with someone revealing her worst inner and outer flaws, still makes us cringe. Maybe Schumer will go on to make the films people seem to want her to make, where a regular girl gets a regular rom-com happy arc. That would be revolutionary, too. But she’s brave enough to show us her scars. Wanting her to cover them up is just another demand for a woman to show her best face.