The big makeover scene, in which a plain, seemingly ordinary woman undergoes a sudden physical transformation, raising her up from ugly duckling to fairy tale princess, is a tried (tired?) and tested movie trope. Pretty Woman took a curly-maned sex worker in a crop top and thigh high boots, and made her a lady with a red silk gown and anti-frizz lotion; The Princess Diaries transformed a high school girl into literal royalty by tweezing her eyebrows; She's All That turned a nerd into a hottie worthy of the most popular boy in school by removing her glasses.
In some ways, I Feel Pretty, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein and starring Amy Schumer, falls into that same narrative pattern. The difference is that in this case, the transformation takes place inside the main character's head. There is no physical makeover, because really, she doesn't need one.
Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a New Yorker whose deep insecurities about her appearance have held her back from reaching her potential, both professionally and in her personal life. She works for Lily LeClaire, the beauty company of her dreams, but is hidden away in a Chinatown basement with the IT developer. Her best friends, Jane (Busy Philipps) and Viv (Aidy Bryant), are supportive, but fail to understand why Renee can't accept herself as the strong, independent woman that she is and move on. It's an interesting role for Schumer, who's known for her extreme confidence in her standup comedy and persona on Inside Amy Schumer, but she sells it.
Everything changes though, when Renee takes a bad fall during a SoulCycle class and hits her head. (A nightmare scenario that is all too real for anyone who has ever struggled with a spin clip.) When she wakes up, dazed, confused, and missing a chunk of ponytail, she takes one look in the mirror and gasps: She's beautiful! Of course, this is just the concussion talking. Renee looks just as she's always looked; it's her own perception that's changed.
This twist on the traditional makeover storyline makes I Feel Pretty feel especially contemporary. We're living in a moment where the conversation around beauty has shifted gears, focusing on the importance of wellness, self-care and so-called inner beauty as the real way to join the ranks of the beautiful people. Of course, that doesn't mean women aren't constantly being harangued with competing messaging: Don't starve yourself, eat healthy — but don't be fat; Embrace your acne — but here's how to cover it up; Curly hair is magical — but only if you straighten it first and then careful re-curl each strand with a scaldingly hot wand in order to achieve peak beach-y muss. It's that inability to ever feel true satisfaction with oneself, to always strive for more attractive, more glamorous, more stylish, that I Feel Pretty seeks to make light of. And there, it does succeed.
Renee's delusion that she's the new Gigi Hadid enables her to find the strength to apply for a position in Lily LeClaire's Fifth Avenue headquarters. Her extreme confidence, which remember, doesn't match what we are conditioned to believe her looks call for, attracts a nice, funny, genuine guy (Rory Scovel, delightful and goofy as ever). Everything is suddenly going Renee's way. And of course, it goes to her already bruised head. Her friends, who have always treated her the way she's yearned to be treated, suddenly aren't good enough; why hang with them when she can now gain entry to the secret clubs in the back of shady dim sum restaurants, courtesy of her shiny beauty industry friends?
I Feel Pretty exposes the vapid emptiness of a looks-based existence. But it also goes a step further in positing that even the beautiful people are plagued with the same concerns as the normals. Renee's boss, Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams), the blonde, ethereal socialite who has inherited the run of her grandmother's company is everything Renee has strived to be. And yet, she herself struggles with a squeaky, high pitched voice and vocal fry that makes her sound like a 6-year-old in high heels rather than a powerful executive. (Williams, incidentally, is perfection in this role, which showcases her impressive range and gives her the chance to be funny. She should be cast as funny more often!) Similarly, Renee's SoulCycle friend, played by Emily Ratajkowksi, may get hit on by random guys at Duane Reade, but she's struggling to get over a bad breakup. This would all feel trite, however, if Schumer didn't convey a true and messy emotion in reaction to these two seemingly perfect women. Her reply to Ratajkowsi's character's admission of low self-esteem captures that mood perfectly: "I want to punch you in your dumb face," she says, in a tone that conveys envy, relief, and sympathy all in one go.
Kohn and Silverstein's script is pretty much what you'd expect from a Schumer project. The dialogue is snappy, deprecating, and real, something that's not always the case for comedies about female insecurities. The action moves along at a brisk pace, interjected with upbeat songs, including Meghan Trainor's "Me Too," a veritable feelin' yourself anthem. But the co-directors also know when to slow things down, letting the camera linger quietly during more emotional scenes, like when Renee strips down in front of her mirror, her Spanx digging into her back as she examines her body with ever increasing frustration.
Still, the movie isn't perfect. Renee's experience is definitely that of a white, privileged woman who has the time and resources to worry about how she looks on a minute level. The lack of diversity in the film makes it far less inclusive than it should be, an omission that dilutes the message somewhat. What's more, while Schumer's character is given the leeway to fully explore her insecurities and potential, the same cannot be said for co-stars Bryant and Philipps, whose characters feel unnecessarily flat for such gifted performers.
The fact that Schumer herself fits into many of the prescribed beauty standards that the film is fighting against, is a point that has been made many times since the film's trailer dropped in February. And it's true, the trailer could do a better job of showing that Renee isn't actually the butt of the joke. But, despite what the initial — undeserved — backlash would suggest, I Feel Pretty isn't designed to be taken that seriously. In fact, to do so is to deprive yourself of a movie that is, all in all, funny, cathartic, and more than a little bit moving.
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