By Justin Chang
Los Angeles Times
“I Feel Pretty” is, how to put this?, better than it looks.
A mildly raunchy yukfest by way of an aspirational fairy tale, the movie stars Amy Schumer as Renee, an ordinary New Yorker who dreams of being a knockout, or, barring that, of being able to squeeze into shoes smaller than a double-wide 9 1/2.
Renee’s dreams come true (sort of) when she suffers a bump on the noggin and, studying herself in the mirror, sees the gorgeous face and slim, toned body she’s always wanted, a development that works wonders for her self-esteem, and subsequently her career and love life.
Based on that summary, you might be tempted to dismiss “I Feel Pretty” sight unseen, and not merely because the past work of writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (who together wrote the screenplays for “How to Be Single” and “He’s Just Not That Into You”) doesn’t inspire confidence.
In 2018, the logic goes, do we really need a movie about a woman so warped by society’s impossible standards that she has to endure a belabored epiphany about the importance of inner beauty?
And even if so, should that woman be played by Amy Schumer, who, for all the mockery that has been directed at her weight and appearance, some but hardly all of it self-inflicted, is no sane person’s idea of forgettable or average-looking?
If the idea was to feature a woman marginalized by her appearance, wouldn’t a bolder, more progressive version of this story have cast a relative unknown, perhaps even a woman of color, someone without Schumer’s distracting white-feminist baggage and celebrity profile?
All valid questions, even if answering some of them would force us to consider a different picture altogether, rather than the goofy, uneven and surprisingly thoughtful one in front of us. Not unlike the recent “Blockers,” which poked fun at the spectacle of hysterical parents trying to safeguard their teenage daughters’ chastity, “I Feel Pretty” will almost certainly be dismissed by those who assume it embodies, rather than examines, a sexist, reductive worldview.
And to be sure, there are moments when you can’t be entirely sure if it’s doing one, the other or both, which strikes me as indicative of not the movie’s awfulness, but its integrity. With a conviction that can seem by turns foolish and inspired, “I Feel Pretty” hurls itself into its initially strained, increasingly wacky premise.
The lessons Renee must learn are fairly obvious, and at nearly two leisurely paced hours, the whole thing could do with (ahem) a nip and a tuck. But it’s a sweet, klutzy charmer, with moments of wit, insight and, yes, beauty, some of which it seems to stumble upon by accident.
There’s nothing accidental of course about the casting of Schumer. Her more controversial sketches may have inspired much abuse of the word “problematic,” but she turns out to be less this movie’s problem than its solution.
I would gladly watch a version of “I Feel Pretty” with a less privileged celebrity in the lead, but I can’t deny the sweet-and-salty verve that Schumer brings to this one. She plays Renee as an ugly duckling who’s gotten awfully good, maybe too good, at letting the water roll off her back.
There is nothing inherently funny or affecting about a scene in which, say, Renee finds herself publicly embarrassed by a Soul Cycle employee (“Saturday Night Live” veteran Sasheer Zamata), or stands idly by while a man chats up the model (Emily Ratajkowski) next to her. But Schumer registers these microaggressions, and occasional macroaggressions, with just the right mix of indignation, envy and thick-skinned restraint. She gets you to laugh, but in between those laughs her character’s woundedness leaves a sharp little sting.
At first glance, Renee might suggest one of Schumer’s regulation girls gone wild, a screwball screw-up who blots out her disappointments with men and booze. But while Renee has no problem partaking of both, her main problem turns out to be her stunted belief that being supermodel-gorgeous is the key to personal happiness. If she were “undeniably pretty,” as she puts it, maybe she wouldn’t be stuck trying out a group-dating service with her girlfriends (Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant), or languishing with an unhappy colleague (Adrian Martinez) in the online division of Lily LeClaire, the high-end cosmetics giant where she works.
But after Renee falls off her Soul Cycle bike and sustains a fateful blow to the head, beauty is suddenly very much in the eye of the beholder.
Crucially, because Renee’s magical makeover takes place entirely inside her head, we never see what her new-and-ostensibly-improved self looks like. (Think of it as the opposite of the “Shallow Hal” effect.) That makes for a few amusing deadpan sequences as Renee exults in a newfound hotness that only she can see, whether she’s chatting up a sensitive guy, Ethan (Rory Scovel), or breezing her way through a job interview with her future boss, Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams, hijacking the movie brilliantly).
“I Feel Pretty” doesn’t try to escape formula. The script acknowledges its roots in the comic subgenre of bodily transformation (at one point, Renee watches “Big”), and its executive-suite drama plays like a thinner, blander version of “Working Girl,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and other satires of Manhattan upward mobility.
The laughs don’t fly as fast or thick as they did in the superior “Trainwreck,” which Schumer wrote, but they’re also more plentiful and less assaultive than they were in her hapless 2017 vehicle, “Snatched.” Even when a gag doesn’t work, it simply slips gently to the side rather than stopping the movie in its tracks.
But Renee’s brazen displays of confidence are funny and emotionally revealing, especially when she leaps into a dive-bar bikini contest, turning the whole sorry, demeaning spectacle on its head. The movie’s conceit might have quickly turned tiresome or mean-spirited, encouraging us to laugh at a woman obliviously making a fool of herself, except that she isn’t doing that at all.
Leaving Renee’s transformation to the imagination was a small masterstroke: Our willingness to suspend disbelief rests entirely on Schumer’s shoulders, and she carries it with aplomb. It’s a pleasure to see her come to life as Renee, turning misunderstandings into happy accidents and, just when we think we may be overestimating her, surprising us with how wrong we are.
There’s something curiously intuitive at work here, and also something sneakily profound. On the simplest level, Schumer’s performance asks: What if the source of your deepest self-doubts were suddenly gone, but you were the only one who knew it? What if you were so oblivious to the perceptions of those around you that it really and truly didn’t matter what everyone else thought?
It’s a question borne out by the movie’s generosity toward nearly all its characters, especially Ethan, who shyly punctures Renee’s assumptions that men are single-minded horndogs, and Avery, whom Williams, playing terrifically against type, gives the kind of vocal inflections that suggest an anemic Betty Boop. She makes this haughty peripheral figure a sweetly touching reminder that our worst insecurities are always more than skin-deep