Hanging with Amy Schumer – a genuine comedy rock star – is always fun, especially when she’s the lead writer on the movies and TV shows she appears in (hello, Trainwreck and Inside Amy Schumer). I Feel Pretty is not written by Schumer, though she reportedly had input – and the disconnect shows. The script is the handiwork of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (How to Be Single, Never Been Kissed), who are also making a wobbly directorial debut that results in erratic pacing and a litany of mixed messages. Internet trolls have been coming down hard on the film since the first trailer broke, crying foul about the fat shaming that’s inherent in a plot about a voluptuous misfit trying to make it in a world where skinny calls the shots. The movie itself should dissipate the rancor a bit – it’s more harmless fluff than toxic agitprop. But still: Is it really OK to get off making plus-size jokes just because you tack on a moralizing ending that teaches a lesson about body positivity? Can you have it both ways?
Schumer stars as Renee Bennett, a Ms. Meek stuck in a shitty basement job working on a website for Lily LeClair cosmetics. (The firm won’t even allow her in their corporate offices.) Sales clerks tell her that they don’t carry her size at their boutique shops – she should try online. Bennett and her besties, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps), take photos for a dating site that gets zero “Likes.” At her SoulCycle gym class, she gets a shoe size that’s “double wide” – a jibe that everyone sniggers at, so it’s repeated. No sooner does our heroine climb on her spinning bike then she breaks it and splits her pants. [Insert hollow laughter.] Next time, she falls off again and cracks her head. Uproarious! Only now it’s different: The dazed Bennett sees herself as confident and attractive, the hottie she’s always dreamed of being. And here’s the thing – the lady hasn’t changed in the slightest. It’s all in her mind. But her newfound assurance gives Bennett the guts to apply for a receptionist job at LeClair and win it.
Credit I Feel Pretty for not going the way of Shallow Hal, the 2001 Farrelly brothers abomination in which the Jack Black character dated a morbidly obese woman – Gwyneth Paltrow in an egregious fat suit – because to him, she looked like (and was) the real Gwyneth Paltrow. Kohn and Silverstein thankfully never sink to that level of two-faced duplicity, though they do trade on it. Blaming society and its corrupt emphasis on physical perfection for the way Schumer and her friends are treated doesn’t get you off the hook for begging laughs at their expense. With her magically induced shot of self esteem, Bennett enters a bikini contest at a bar where the patrons stare at her bulging midriff in mocking disbelief. Memo to filmmaker: What do you think the audience is doing?
The movie keeps jerking our chain, encouraging us first to chuckle snidely and then feel bad about it. It’s wearying. There is compensation in a few sensational supporting performances: Michelle Williams is hilarious as Avery LeClair, the cosmetics CEO and granddaughter of the firm’s founder Lily (Lauren Hutton). Williams uses a high-pitched voice that wreaks havoc with her businesswoman’s already shaky dignity; the tension between how LeClair appears and how she sounds is palpable. Model Emily Ratajkowski also scores as a gym buddy with character weaknesses her looks can’t cure. Schumer is especially funny and touching in her scenes with the excellent Rory Scovel as Ethan, the shy guy she picks up who’s more in touch with his feminine side than everyone else in the macho jungle where he operates.
I Feel Pretty keeps preaching the obvious – that we’re all vulnerable to issues of self worth. And the filmmakers pull every sentimental trick in the book to show their heart is in the right place; the last section of the movie is a tearjerking slog. But blunt honesty is not this film’s strong suit. Take the good folks at LeClair, who exploit Schumer’s character to help them sell a new brand of cosmetics to low-end consumers, because self esteem is not just good for the soul, it’s good for business. Bennett learns that hey, she’s always had that strong woman inside her – so now she can use that power to market cosmetics as a new road to actualization and success? That’s the takeaway? I Feel Pretty use the same technique to hawk tickets: See this movie and you’ll feel better about yourself. If the people responsible for this comedy aren’t embarrassed by that hypocrisy, they damn well should be.