Up to this point, comedian and actor Amy Schumer has been known as a boundary pusher. The best sketches on her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer (2013-’17) called out and rejected the ways in which women are expected to adhere to certain beauty standards and behavioral norms in consumer society. Trainwreck (2015), her first starring feature, was a successful extension of her TV show’s themes and her stand-up persona as a raunchy, unapologetic lush. Like Bridesmaids (2011), Trainwreck became a feminist triumph not by emphasizing the differences between men and women but by riffing on their similarities, and by letting the smart and unsparing humor speak for itself.
Unfortunately, Schumer’s latest venture, I Feel Pretty, represents the kind of hypercommercialized feminism that Schumer’s show might have skewered. Renee (Schumer), an insecure Manhattanite in her mid-30s, falls off her bike in spin class and wakes up from a head injury to see herself as a perfect ten. Renee looks the same to everyone else, but that doesn’t stop her from upgrading her life based on the image in her mirror. Finally she has the confidence to nab a receptionist job at the glitzy Fifth Avenue headquarters of her favorite high-end cosmetics company, hit on a guy at the dry cleaner, and perfectly apply liquid eyeliner.
I Feel Pretty has a mildly creative premise that might have generated some trenchant satire, and a nice if cliched message: that self-confidence can be beautiful. But first-time filmmakers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein squander both these assets, delivering less of a movie than a corporate-friendly platform on which to sell female empowerment through platitudes and lifestyle brands. The film begins, ends, and stops twice in between at a SoulCycle in SoHo, and that’s just one example. Whether intentional or not, the film’s design is depressingly obvious: to lump women into a convenient demographic and barrage them with product placements.
Even more tiresome is how Renee becomes a mouthpiece for what “real women” want, as if she were the spokesperson in an advertising campaign. At her new job, Renee literally stumbles into a meeting with executives who are testing products for a lower-end makeup line. When asked for her thoughts, she expresses her displeasure with the blush. “Regular girls” want an applicator inside the blush compact, Renee says, because a woman who shops at Target probably doesn’t own a nice makeup brush. Later, Renee explains that ordinary women hate “statuesque” makeup artists in department stores, because the latter cause the former to “feel bad.”
Based on this and other reductive comments, which the filmmakers treat as not only universally true but profound, the company’s founder (Lauren Hutton) and her granddaughter (Michelle Williams), the CEO, ask Renee to present the line to Target bigwigs in Boston. Yes, in what is, unfortunately, not a cinematic first, a corporation works its way into a film’s climax, muddying the message to an almost comical degree. I Feel Pretty encourages women and girls to be individuals, and also to shop at Target.
The most damning aspect of this movie, more damning even than its pandering or blatant commercialism, is how deeply unfunny it is. Kohn and Silverstein, who also cowrote the script, have a tenuous grasp of comedic timing, often leaving a vacuum of dead air inside which the actors flail. Aidy Bryant, frequently funny on Saturday Night Live, is wasted here as Renee’s blank, put-upon best friend, and so is Busy Phillips as Friend #2, whose unexplained medical scrubs substitute for character development. Michelle Williams comes off the worst: using a squeaky voice that serves as the character’s single joke, the Oscar nominee has never looked more lost onscreen. Rory Scovel, as Renee’s slightly effeminate boyfriend, is appealing, but his underwritten role gives him little to do other than bask in Renee’s newfound fearlessness. And Renee, in contrast to the complex and semi-autobiographical character Schumer wrote and played in Trainwreck, is bland, didactic, and shallow.
Near the end of I Feel Pretty, Renee says to a roomful of women, and also to the viewer: “When we’re little girls, we have all the confidence in the world. . . . Let’s get that little-girl confidence back!” And, referring to the makeup she’s selling, “This line is for every girl!” Never mind that not all women share the same experiences or would blindly accept her as their spokesperson (especially nonwhite women). Despite the gutsiness the movie projects, I Feel Pretty is a self-conscious work, relying on an amorphous yet unimpeachable rallying cry of girl power to sell itself. v