'I Feel Pretty' is almost sort of OK
Two-thirds of the way in, “I Feel Pretty” has its own “Rookie of the Year” moment. Having slipped in the shower and hit her head, Renee (Amy Schumer) then looks in the mirror and sees a completely different person than the one she has ever since she fell off a Soulcycle bike and knocked her consciousness toward a far more confident place. Now, though, post-shower slipping, Renee no longer marvels at what she sees reflected. Certain that the magic is gone, she is disgusted and sure that the gains she has made since at last looking the way she has always dreamed, particularly her relationship with Ethan (Rory Scovel), will no longer be available to her.
It is no secret that confidence is one of the most important elements of living a happy life, or that much of the world, particularly the U.S., puts a lot of stock in outward appearance. As a wish-fulfillment fantasy that inevitably suggests that the problem was self-imposed from the start, I Feel Pretty aims to test what happens when a person’s confidence exists incongruously with the level that the rest of her world thinks she should have. Well, that is the more progressive version of the movie, actually. Written by first-time directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (who have added little to ideas of female empowerment by writing “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “The Vow” and “How to Be Single”), this oddly intriguing mix of mediocre comedy and inspirational drama just sort of gawks at Renee’s newfound swagger and says, “Um … OK. Great!”
The character certainly crystallizes right away as someone who needs the boost. Arriving for her first-ever Soulcycle class, Renee speaks meekly, partly embarrassed by her shoe size but also intimidated by the leaner bodies surrounding her. She derives her value from her physical place in the world and thus sees little value there at all, as evidenced by her minimal dating prospects and job in the online division for a major makeup company, which has stashed the department’s employees in a Chinatown basement instead of the posh skyscraper of its Manhattan headquarters. Renee’s low self-esteem puts her on the periphery of society, though not without a sense of what happens closer to the cooler, better-looking center. Bumping into Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski), one of the Soulcycle attendees who observes Renee falling off her bike for the first time (this being before the second incident that results in the head injury), Renee asks if the thin, young, beautiful Mallory has ever gone to Italy, met guys who take her on their yacht and opened up a completely dazzling and unexpected part of her trip. Of course, Mallory says. It was Greece, but yeah. “I knew it; I knew stuff like that happened,” Renee says, glimpsing the type of life she can never have.
Or could she? The crux of “I Feel Pretty” is how things open up when a person carries themselves like they believe they deserve what they want (though feel free to debate how people would respond to a wallflower Ratajkowski versus a supremely self-assured Schumer). While it fortunately does not result in Renee being, say, swept off to a Grecian island by a brilliant and mysterious billionaire, the way in which Ethan falls for Renee’s lack of inhibition speaks volumes about the sexiness of confidence. At first he fears Renee is making a huge mistake entering a “Bangin’ Bikini” contest, where the other competitors are stick-thin and far more conventional participants in such an event. But not only does Renee win over the crowd by dancing and declaring her comfort in returning things for store credit, she delights in winning two free drinks and an appetizer rather than lamenting that she did not come in first place. “I know I look good, I don’t need a room of drunk guys to confirm that,” she says. Replies Ethan: “Can I be you when I grow up?” There is something mature and unfortunately rare in living that way, and it makes Renee more attractive to Ethan than either one of them thought she could be.
There is merit in that message. Unfortunately, “I Feel Pretty” gets stuck in a vacuum, in which numerous opportunities for possible social media embarrassment do not exist and Renee is shielded from the sadly undeniable cruelties of modern America. Her narrative arc simply boils down to realizing that she has not changed, only the way she feels about herself has changed, and she needs to remember that her friends (Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps, mostly wasted) care about her because of who she is, not what she looks like. Perhaps if Kohn and Silverstein spent more time exploring the intricacies of how friendships sometimes hinge on a degree of physical and social equality – Vivian (Bryant) gives Renee a good reality check when identifying that Renee thinks she can just drop in on her “loser friends” who never have anything to do, but she is wrong – the film might have been a minor, more commercial cousin of Neil LaBute’s fantastic “The Shape of Things.” That movie fearlessly examined how appearance and self-esteem can impact personality, with devastating consequences.
“I Feel Pretty,” on the other hand, gets bogged down by painful exchanges between Renee and her co-worker Mason (Adrian Martinez), which mistake vulgar for funny and slow down an already grueling pace. Meanwhile, little comes from casting normally drama-focused Michelle Williams in a semi-comic role as the head of Renee’s company who laments how her voice makes her sound far stupider than her Wharton degree deserves. The theme is just too basic and the tone is too stilted for this to work, and Ratajkowksi’s underrated acting abilities do not save the conversation in which Renee cannot believe that Mallory ever feels insecure or unwanted. Schumer, meanwhile, recovers from some early over-acting (and the film going a bit too far in establishing Renee’s personality overkill as confidence becomes arrogance) to find the silly pride and vulnerability that Renee experiences while she swings from shy to swagger and back again.
But “I Feel Pretty,” despite making worthwhile reference to the aspirational fantasy of “Big,” struggles to expand beyond its premise, and registering as less grown-worthy than “Shallow Hal”is a pretty low bar to clear. In one scene, Renee advises her friends that they need to be hotter, effectively ruining a group date with suitors that were plenty interested before Renee spoiled it. The exchange is nearly identical to a sequence that highlighted Dennis Reynolds’ (Glenn Howerton) extreme, fragile vanity in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” That show goes to more challenging places faster and funnier. By comparison, “I Feel Pretty” qualifies as a sort of 100-calorie pack of truth and uplift, with laughs sold separately.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.