“I FEEL PRETTY”
Amy Schumer’s trademark as a stand-up comic was self-delusion. She’d tell stories that supposedly showed how generous or socially concerned or irresistible she was and reveal the opposite. Now in “I Feel Pretty” that comic strategy is blown out to fill a feature length movie that turns out not only to be funny but endearing and humane.
Schumer plays Renee, an office-worker in a cosmetics firm who wishes she were beautiful. She sees her life as a series of minor deflations and humiliations: She goes into a clothing store and the salesperson walks over to say that they don’t stock her size. She would love to be the cosmetic company’s receptionist, but she doesn’t even dare to apply. She wishes she knew what it was like “to be undeniably pretty.”
Renee is a character that almost anyone can connect with, because we recognize in her the awful human tendency to dwell on real and imagined flaws and thus limit our lives. But then one day she bangs her head. When she wakes up, she is unshakably convinced that she is beautiful. In fact, nothing at all has changed. But she applies for the receptionist job. She is confident with men. She even spontaneously throws herself into a bikini contest.
This whole concept is a rich vein for gags, especially with a comic as at home with herself as Schumer. But there’s something sweet and wise about it, too. The world does not stop reacting to Renee in the same old way. The only change is that she doesn’t notice slights and doesn’t inflate them in her mind. She’s basically just being herself, but her true, enthusiastic, happy self — the self she was afraid to show — and, of course, her life changes.
This is an important distinction to make: “I Feel Pretty” does not make the empty-headed assertion that beauty is entirely a social construct, or that everything is beautiful in its own way. It’s not a movie for the selfie era, the equivalent of all those songs on the radio that say you are great just for being you. It is nothing like the cast of “The Greatest Showman” dancing to the song “This is Me.”
Its aim is more modest, but more useful. It’s saying you’re on this Earth once. Why go around hating yourself? Why go around concealing yourself? And if some people are nasty to you, or try to bring out your insecurities, for whatever twisted reasons they might have, why believe them, or even bother to notice? The movie offers the comic yet beautiful spectacle of a human being blossoming, simply because she ceases to be shy. The thinking-she’s-gorgeous-thing is just the excuse she needs to be herself.
For this reason, a subplot involving Renee’s friends’ becoming disenchanted with her, because she is supposedly changing for the worse, doesn’t work. Understandably, the movie wants to get Renee’s best friends out of the picture, before they tell her that she looks the same as she always did. But the change in Renee is clearly glorious. She doesn’t become a jerk because of what she perceives as her good fortune. She’s becomes unbound.
Michelle Williams plays one of Renee’s bosses — the blond, perfect, soft-voiced granddaughter of the company’s founder (an ideally cast Lauren Hutton) — and what a wonderful thing that an actress of Williams’ stature and ability should take this supporting role. “I Feel Pretty” would have worked just fine with the boss being a mere comic figure. Instead Williams brings out the humor while suggesting an interior of doubt and insecurity and unexpected strength — it’s a complete character.
But Schumer is the movie, shamelessly comic — shoveling food into her face, while saying, “I can eat whatever I want and still look like this!” — but also willing to take us straight into the character’s pain. “I Feel Pretty” may go down as her signature picture.