I Feel Pretty
Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (2018)
Early in Amy Schumer’s new movie I Feel Pretty, when her character Renee Bennett is at a particularly low point self-esteem-wise, she happens to be watching Penny Marshall’s Bigon television, and is transfixed by the scene in which the young protagonist makes a wish with the mechanized “Gypsy Fortune Teller,” saying “I wish I was big,” after which he receives a card that says, “your wish is granted.” Inspired, or maybe just desperate, Renee races out into a downpour to stop at a fountain near her New York apartment in order to throw a coin into the water and cry, “I wish I was beautiful!”
The following day, Renee visits a SoulCycle class during which she takes a fall from her cycle and suffers a severe head blow that knocks her unconscious. When she comes to she begins to admire her own arms and her thighs, and when she looks in the mirror, she suddenly sees herself as a glamorous beauty with the body of a supermodel. The catch is, this isn’t a case of young David Moscow turning into Tom Hanks. Renee looks exactly the same. The only thing that’s changed is the way she sees herself.
This has the makings of a significant movie, one that underscores the need for women to be self- confident in a society that does its utmost to squelch any self-confidence they may in fact have. And one that at the same time examines the body dysmorphia characteristic of so many women in contemporary America. This is a neurosis fed daily by completely atypical supermodels who are paid to sell those same women things that will make their “unacceptable” bodies thinner, firmer, sexier, better toned and better dressed. And the subtext of all those ads is that the only way to actually havean acceptable body is to have one just like those supermodels. I Feel Prettyseems poised to take on that unrealistic image and tear it down. The empress has no clothes.
Amy Schumer has made a career out of irreverently undercutting the expectations laid upon women in American culture, and such a film seems made for her as, in fact, it was. The film was created as a vehicle for its star, like 2015’s very successful and well-reviewed Trainwreck, in which she plays a career woman with a fear of commitment. So why would a film like this, with such a promising premise, be getting such poor reviews, not only from critics, who give it a 34 percent positive rating on review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com, but also from audiences, consisting mainly of the women who are its target market, and who give it only 31 percent on the same site?
One reason at least for this negative response is probably the blatant product placement that pervades the film. Aside from being a fairly obvious advertisement for Target, especially in its second half, the film also has no fewer than four scenes set in a SoulCycle studio—not simply at a gym or a generic kind of workout—but specifically SoulCycle. Four of them. I wonder what the message is here? But think about this: Here is a film the avowed purpose of which is trying to send women the message that it’s OK to have a normal human body and that you don’t have to succumb to the advertising propaganda that tells you you’re not OK unless you have the body of a supermodel, so that they can sell you all kinds of “correctives” for your imperfect body—correctives like, uh, SoulCycle. Is it just me, or are there conflicting messages here?
Schumer’s far more successfulTrainwreckwas helmed by proven director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) and written by Schumer herself, and thus was perfectly suited to her style and personality as honed in her stand-up routines and TV shows. I Feel Prettyis written by the team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (authors of the not wholly successful screenplays for He’s Just Not That Into Youand Never Been Kissed), who also make their directorial debut with this film. Between the writing and directing, there are a number of troubling inconsistencies and mixed messages in the film that parallel the product-placement debacle.
For example, at the beginning of the film, we see Renee working in a shabby underground space with the socially awkward Mason (Adrian Martinez, a veteran of Schumer’s TV series Inside AmySchumer) which is the site of online operations for a huge successful cosmetics company called Lily LeClaire. It seems absurd that in today’s economy, so reliant on online sales, a large company would hide their potentially most important sales division in a basement far from company headquarters. When Renee visits the headquarters, which is staffed solely by supermodels, it becomes clear that she and Mason are hidden away because they do not meet the company’s standards for beauty. After Renee begins to think of herself as beautiful, she applies for and gets a job as receptionist in the company headquarters (taking a cut in pay in the process—so she would rather belong to the “beautiful people” club than to make a living wage?). Of course, the reason she is given the job is that the company, trying for the first time to market to everyday women instead of models or the super-rich, needs a “normal” woman to advise them on things nobody in the company headquarters knows—just what is it that average women look for when they shop? So let’s consider this: The film wants you to think that Renee can land a job based on her own self-confidence, but what actually happens in the film is that she is given the job specifically becauseshe is not one of the beautiful people.
To take one more example: self-confident Renee gets a new boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovel, another alumnus of Inside Amy Schumer), whom she picks up in a dry-cleaning store—something she would never have had the confidence to do before. But when she has a chance to seduce the handsome Grant LeClair (Tom Hopper of Game of Thrones), brother of her company’s head Avery, she becomes nervous and tongue-tied in his presence. How does that make sense?
But inconsistencies and non-sequiturs aside, the worst part of the film is the mixed message it sends. If we are supposed to agree that normal-sized and normal-looking women have a right to feel comfortable in their own skins, then what are we to make of the jokes at Renee’s expense when she asks for a “double wide” shoe size, or when she apparently is so heavy that she breaks the SoulCycle that she is riding and has to leave the class having split her pants at the seam? And what are we to make of the bikini contest she enters against several other women, all of whom are super-model types, and moves her body around in a sexy manner while her new boyfriend cringes and people in the bar shout insults at her? She ultimately wins them over by turning the whole thing into a kind of satire with comments like “Renee is notafraid of returning things for store credit,” underscoring the fact that she is actually a normal woman and not a supermodel. But there is clearly a body-shaming aspect to this performance that invites us to scorn Renee’s incongruent performance. So…the film seems to be saying that women should be true to themselves and reject the unrealistic images foisted on them by media versions of femininity, but we’re going to laugh at them when they do.
These inconsistencies and mixed messages are the result of poor writing, as is the film’s climactic monologue in which the main character tells an assembled crowd as well as the film’s viewing audience what the message of the film is in no uncertain terms. No subtlety here, folks! This, coupled with the other obvious fact that Amy Schumer is notan unattractive woman or even overweight in the first place, makes one wonder just what sort of audience would relate to this film, despite its surface premise.
Schumer is entertaining in a badly written role. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) as Avery LeClaire, the impossibly glamorous head of the cosmetics company, is strangely appealing as the powerful maven whose chipmunk-like voice makes herself-conscious. Busy Philipps (of TV’s Cougar Town) and Aidy Bryant (of Saturday Night Live) are sympathetic as Renee’s oldest and truest friends. But overall the film is a disappointment, because it fails to deliver on its promises. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.
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