1. I Feel Pretty is so ludicrously high-concept that, no matter how hard it tries and how surprisingly sincere it might be, it never quite overcomes it. This is a movie in which a woman named Renee (Amy Schumer) of ordinary weight and body type has a head injury that causes her to believe that she is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. There have been more improbable concepts at the movies—just last week, The Rock played a former special forces agent who now takes care of animals at the San Diego Zoo (and I haven’t even gotten into the flying wolf yet). When you sketch it out, the concept is even in the tradition of decades of body swap comedies, from Like Father, Like Son to Freaky Friday to even Big, which the movie explicitly references. But those involved the actual switching of bodies: The reality in the film is that the swap has actually happened, so we just accept that reality and move forward. But baked into I Feel Pretty’s premise is that our protagonist—the person we need to cheer for, the person whose journey we’re on—is an insane person and that no one in her life is willing or capable of either informing her of that, or helping her. The movie tries to dig its way out of its straitjacket, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible.
2. Renee, as initially played by Schumer, is obsessed with beauty products—she works at Lily LeClaire, a high-end cosmetics giant, but in the basement of their online offices—and sweet but shy and self-doubting, staring into the mirror, utterly depressed by what she sees. One day, an accident at a SoulCycle class leads to a concussion with, for Renee, what seems like a positive outcome: She looks into the mirror and sees physical perfection. Suddenly, she is assertive in every aspect of her life, pushing herself into a vice president job at Lily LeClair (where she works alongside the company’s CEO, played by Michelle Williams) and showing a newfound confidence in her love life, specifically with a winsome proud Beta male played by Rory Scovel. The idea is that once she believes herself gorgeous, she will act with the self-possession that she could have all along; she will the person she dreams herself to be.
3. That’s a nice idea—sort of a riff on “dress for the job you want not the job you have”—and the movie never stops attempting to justify it for us; the film never shames Renee for how she looks, or how she believes she looks now. You can see the film strain and sweat to underline that central message, that women hold themselves back through self-doubt, that if you act like you belong, you will belong. (If you are unsure of the concept, Schumer gives a number of speeches to remind you of it, including a couple directly to the camera.) The problem is that the film is more about its concept that its people, particularly the woman at the center of it. Writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein dutifully roll Renee through conventional rom-com narratives—she is initially powerful, then loses who she is along the way, and rediscovers it just in time for the big finish—without every quite grasping who she is. They need her to be both so obsessed with beauty that she is capable of being blinded and having it change her whole worldview, and also self-aware enough to be both capable of change and also connected to the real world enough that we can relate to her journey. This is probably impossible. How much change is someone with a head injury capable of undergoing? When she’s charming her new boyfriend with her confidence, is that really her? Why doesn’t one of her lifelong best friends (Busy Phillips and Aidy Bryant) try to help her? Who are we watching exactly? The movie never figures it out, or even wrestles with it that hard.
4. Schumer is dancing as fast as she can here, and she proves once again to be a deft performer, capable of more subtlety than you might expect, or what the role might even require. There’s a sweetness, almost a naïveté, here that she plays nicely, but it can’t help but contrast with the boxes the filmmakers keep putting her in; she is a smart person who isn’t quite able to convince us she’s this dumb. Schumer does her best, though, and she’s surrounded by a cast of actors who are all a little bit better and more qualified than was probably necessary. Scovel, a standup comedian himself, is a particular standout, as a kind, gentle man who is so utterly charmed by Renee he finds himself bemused even by his own reaction shots to her increasingly erratic gambits. Phillips and Bryant give great double-take as well, and even Emily Ratajkowski is able to find some right notes as an object of desire at Renee’s gym who has all sorts of insecurities of her own. The biggest performance comes from Michelle Williams, a transcendent actress making a rare foray into a mainstream studio comedy, and I’ll confess, as much as I adore the actress, her take on the spoiled but smarter-than-people-realize head of Lily LeClair doesn’t quite work. She goes all in on the performance, but it’s distracting and all in all sort of awkward and off-putting. If it helps pay for a couple of Kelly Reichardt movies, it will have been well worth it.
5. This is the wall that I Feel Pretty keeps running into, the conflict between being a movie that wants to say something positive to help women with issues of self-image and self-esteem but keeps getting dragged back into the conventions of a tired, wheezing genre. You want the movie to be a little weirder, to maybe dig into Renne’s psyche a little bit. Why did a simple knock on the head turn her so delusional? Why does she react in such an over-the-top fashion both to what she thinks she looks like and what she actually does? Seriously, why doesn’t one of her friends say something to her? The movie keeps trying the bank shot of propping up its crazed premise while its lead actress, gamely, almost bravely, tries to undercut it. It never quite makes it, but you appreciate how hard it, and she, tries. There’s a positive message in this movie about female empowerment and the oppression imposed on women by the world and by themselves. But you have to dig quite a bit to find it.
Directors: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein
Writers: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein
Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Rory Scovel, Emily Ratajkowski, Busy Phillips, Aidy Bryant, Naomi Campbell, Lauren Hutton, Tom Hopper
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.