The big screen can be a cramped space for an outsize talent. Before Jordan Peele found his footing with the ground-shifting Get Out, he and Keegan-Michael Key had traded in sketch-comedy brilliance for the genre-thingamabob territory of Keanu. The feature outings of Amy Schumer, a master of the skit format if ever there was one, have yet to match the subversive wallop of Inside Amy Schumer, the show that made her not just a star but a creative force to be reckoned with.
I Feel Pretty finds her on relative terra firma after the misfire of Snatched, but as with Trainwreck, this empowerment fairy tale, with its muddled manifesto, isn’t as gutsy as it wants to be. Writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein would seem to have fashioned a narrative interpretation of Schumer’s offscreen rallying cry, “I say if I’m beautiful” — even if, in their scenario, getting to that place of self-determination requires mild brain trauma. The story of a woman who’s knocked unconscious and wakes believing that she’s supermodel material, the film veers between inspired and strained and finally settles into the realm of self-improvement pop psychology.
And I feel underwhelmed.
As Renee Bennett, Schumer is an alternately delightful and grating PG-13 good girl, not the queen of raunch she has often played to hot-mess perfection. The mirror isn’t a source of magic in Renee’s fairy tale, but it does reveal her shift in perception, from weary self-loathing to unapologetic self-adoration. That’s not a gradual shift but a sudden one, the result of a spin-class accident that takes place not long after a direct reference to the life-altering presto change-o in Big.
In her charmed and probably concussive state, Renee looks the same as she did before her fall, to us as well as to her closest, soon-to-be-sidelined friends (Aidy Bryant, Busy Phillips). But she sees something else: the kind of physical “perfection” that has been denied her and in turn has defined her, along with countless women raised to believe that prettiness is a female’s cardinal value. Before the eons of conditioning are knocked out of her noggin, Renee tells a new friend (Emily Ratajkowski) who’s a model, “I’ve always wondered what it feels like to be undeniably pretty.” Schumer delivers the line with heartbreaking earnestness; it’s one of several moments here that bode well for her as she eyes dramatic roles — and make you wish that this one had pushed deeper rather than falling into a predictable pattern: High on her new sense of worth and living large, Renee alienates her besties before the redemptive wrap-up.
Believing she’s a 10+, she expects positive attention instead of invisibility. She goes for what she wants, whether that’s a nice guy (Rory Scovel), a better job or a bikini-contest trophy. Her newfound confidence is a healthy thing, no doubt about it. But feeling beautiful also makes her condescending, presumptuous, vain and snobby. Inevitable, if somewhat half-hearted, lessons ensue.
Renee’s dream job takes her from a cluttered basement office, where she and the socially inept Mason (Adrian Martinez) form the online division of a cosmetics company, to the firm’s glamorous Fifth Avenue headquarters. William O. Hunter’s production design nabs the high-low divide with wit, and the entrance of Michelle Williams, as CEO Avery LeClair, ups the comic ante.
The gifted Williams, who’s had few opportunities to work in a comic vein, proves unsurprisingly adept at it. Breathy-voiced and blank-faced, her character has a feather-light physicality, enhanced by Debra McGuire’s costumes and played up by the helmers and DP Florian Ballhaus with a well-deployed bit of slo-mo. Like Tilda Swinton’s magazine editor in Trainwreck, Williams is the movie’s standout surprise.
Schumer’s unfiltered persona makes her the perfect foil for such hyper-polished corporate types, and the film could have used more of the wacky and revelatory yin-yang between Renee and Avery. All too soon their incongruities grow less edgy, giving way to workplace productivity — the yawn-inducing variety, not the charged Mad Men kind. One of the paradoxes of Renee’s delusion-invigorated self-esteem is that she lives to serve a beauty brand and help it hawk its wares. She teaches the luxury-blinded Avery what she needs to know about the women who would buy the brand’s new lower-cost line, an idea spearheaded by the company’s elegant founder (Lauren Hutton, who’s joined briefly by fellow supermodel Naomi Campbell as another LeClair executive).
As Grant LeClair, Avery’s playboy brother and the would-be prince in this adventure, Game of Thrones‘ Tom Hopper is more a diversionary tactic than a fully realized character — not that most of the characters here have much dimension; mainly they react to Renee. Grant serves primarily to spark a very pointed but weirdly unexplored suggestion of bi-curiosity on the part of Ethan (Scovel), Renee’s new boyfriend. The implication might be that it wouldn’t matter to her even if she knew that he’s attracted to men — an idea worth more than a few comic beats in an otherwise flat dinner scene.
Ethan’s “feminine” traits, which include not just a taste for Zumba but a general non-assertiveness, make him an unconventional love interest in a Hollywood romance. Like most of the film’s seemingly risky gambits, though, this one soon retreats to safer terrain. Schumer convincingly spews a couple of rants about the superficiality of online dating and the self-criticism that’s drummed into girls, but that fire is punctuation rather than fuel. I Feel Pretty is more interested in striking an ingratiating pose. The attempts at irreverence, including unfortunate bathroom jokes, often feel like affectations.
Directing for the first time, screenwriters Kohn and Silverstein (He’s Just Not That Into You, How to Be Single) effectively showcase the comic flourishes that do work, Williams’ especially. Yet the bracing promise of the setup steadily loses fizz and the overlong feature grows smaller — constricted, deflated — as it travels familiar routes and substitutes ad-speak for insight. It regains some buoyancy with a sweet bit of business involving cellphones and a broken date, and in its final moment, with a flash of fury in Schumer’s gaze, it taps into something that can’t be contained by the story’s simplistic framework.
Production companies: Huayi Brothers Pictures, Voltage Pictures, Wonderland Sound and Vision
Distributor: STX Films
Cast: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Rory Scovel, Emily Ratajkowski, Busy Phillips, Aidy Bryant, Naomi Campbell, Lauren Hutton, Tom Hopper, Sasheer Zamata, Adrian Martinez, Dave Attell
Directors-screenwriters: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein
Producers: McG, Mary Viola, Nicolas Chartier, Amy Schumer, Alissa Phillips, Dominic Rustam
Executive producers: Justin Bursch, Kevin Kane, Jonathan Deckter, Daniel Rappaport, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei,?Felice Bee, Donald Tang, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: William O. Hunter
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Editor: Tia Nolan
Composer: Michael Andrews
Casting directors: Justine Arteta, Kim Davis-Wagner
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes