I really, really really wanted to like Amy Schumer’s newest movie, I Feel Pretty. I think Schumer is an intelligent and usually witty comedian, with a distinct point of view and something to contribute to the social conversation. Unfortunately, this film displays none of those qualities, though whether that’s her fault or the filmmakers’ is unclear (I Feel Pretty was both written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Siverstein, of He’s Just Not That Into You and Never Been Kissed rom-com credentials.)
Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a funny but insecure thirty-something who works in a dumpy offsite office for a posh makeup line, Lily LeClaire. She has two good friends, Jane and Vivian (a very under-utilized Busy Philips and Aidy Bryant), a cute apartment, great wardrobe, and an apparent membership to Soul Cycle. Her life isn’t perfect but it’s comfortable, though she dreams of someday working in the glamorous, downtown, Lily LeClaire headquarters. The thing is, everyone who works there is an aspiring supermodel, or at least looks like one—slim, sophisticated, and perfectly made up. (Michelle Williams as the squeaky-voiced CEO absolutely kills it.) Renee wants to apply for a receptionist job, but lacks the confidence to even put herself in the running.
That is, until she hits her head hard during a fall at spin class. When she wakes up, she is shocked to see that she’s transformed into a supermodel…or at least she thinks she has. No one else registers any difference, but Renee is convinced, and the event gives her all the confidence she once lacked. Attempts at hilarity ensue.
The most confusing thing about I Feel Pretty is that I don’t know who it’s supposed to be for. Schumer herself posted on Instagram that “this movie is for my 14 year old self,” and for sure, the cheesy obviousness of the message rings true to that. But the jokes and situational gags are for another generation entirely—jokes about having sex with the lights on, or being stuck in a dead-end job, or feeling out of place in a spin class of tiny peppy women. I fear that this disconnect means that the movie will fail to resonate with either demographic.
And as with her previous film, Snatched, Schumer is miscast. She plays Renee as earnest and ditsy, two qualities I don’t buy for a second from Schumer. It’s almost as if she’s trying to channel Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, which—charming as that was—is a misstep, because what we really want is for Schumer to play herself. Her character is so lacking in self-awareness that at times it’s difficult to determine whether we’re supposed to sympathize with her or ridicule her. (And knowing that in real life, Schumer would certainly do the latter, makes it even harder).
What also struck me is how derivative it feels of 2000’s era rom coms, and not in a good way. In the first decade of the new millennium, screenwriters could not conceive that women in their 20’s wanted to work anywhere other than a) at a women’s magazine, b) in fashion, c) something to do with wedding planning, or d) some combination of the three. (Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama – fashion designer; Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – columnist at a women’s magazine; Jennifer Garner in13 Going On 30 – fashion editor at a women’s magazine; Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner – a wedding planner.) Having Renee work for a cosmetic line, and then willingly take a pay cut to be a receptionist at said cosmetic line, would be a great joke if the decision was a satirical one, but it didn’t seem to be. Sure, the setting is apropos for a movie that’s thematically about women’s appearances, but the obviousness of it almost undermines the message of self-acceptance, as if insecurity plagues only women in certain positions.
All of that being said, I still take issue with the backlash surrounding this film, which inevitably started as soon as the trailer was released (months before anyone had seen the movie, of course). In short, Internet People were saying that Amy Schumer, despite being vaguely outside the aesthetic Hollywood norm, was too thin/white/pretty/blonde to be the poster child for female insecurity. To which I have to say “OH MY GOSH, YOU ARE MISSING THE POINT.” What Schumer and the writers are actually saying, albeit mostly clumsily and un-funnily, is that the reality of how you look might have very little to do with your amount of self-esteem…such is the pervasiveness of negative pressure put on women to look a certain way. We seldom have an accurate perception of what’s normal and okay and lovable about the way we look. Skinny women feel insecure. Fat women feel insecure. Women of all shapes and colors and ages feel insecure. Western society has very thoroughly conditioned us to believe that our appearance matters, that the world will judge us according to the face and body we present publicly, and that our opportunities both professionally and personally will be affected.
There’s a moment towards the beginning of the film when Renee undresses in front of a full-length mirror, and her face crumples at the sight of herself. It’s a look of despair and shame, and in the midst of a very mediocre movie, it broke my heart. I’m sure that moment will feel resoundingly familiar for a lot of women. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it often feels like perfection is our only option, and that anything less means we don’t deserve to exist. Or that fulfilling an extremely limited conception of what it means to be “pretty” is the price of admission women must pay to participate in the world socially.
To be sure, I Feel Pretty brings up a lot of very real and important issues relating to gender, femininity, and appearance, but it twirls around them rather than sits down at the table for an actual conversation. Schumer’s past work is evidence that she’s capable of blunt, boundary-pushing social commentary, stuff that’s simultaneously intelligent and hilarious, which is why it was such a disappointment to me that I Feel Pretty is neither funny nor smart. Whatever her next project is, I hope she can write it instead of just star in it. We need her snarky incisiveness behind the camera even more than we need it onscreen.