The new Amy Schumer property I Feel Pretty, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, is a rom-com with a central gimmick. Schumer’s main character, Renee, is deeply insecure and wishes to be pretty. And then her wish is granted, sort of.
The plot is a semi-spoof of Big and its successors in the overnight-magic transformation genre. Renee works in the basement satellite office of a luxury makeup brand and dreams of ascending to a position in the brand’s sleek headquarters. She fumbles her way through spin classes at SoulCycle and nights out with her best friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps), only to come home and stare critically at her body in the mirror, wishing to be beautiful.
Then Renee’s life changes after what seems to be an alarmingly serious head injury during a SoulCycle class (no one ever suggests Renee see a doctor). She wakes up to find her wish has been granted: She’s a toned goddess, suddenly in love with her arms, legs and cheekbones — except she doesn’t look any different, she just thinks she does.
But Renee proceeds as though she were in one of those movies where wishes are actually granted, whispering to her friends that it’s her, Renee, and she’s undergone a miraculous transformation. Here’s where the film feels somewhat held together with Scotch tape. In Big and films of its ilk, the magic is real and therefore follows some rules, some sort of logic. But in Renee’s story, there’s no actual magic; all it would take to prematurely end the film would be one of her friends pointing out she doesn’t look any different than she did the day before. But no one does (and plenty of rom-coms are built on similarly flimsy premises) so Renee — now brimming with self-confidence — is able to achieve everything she wanted.
She finds a sweet, funny boyfriend in Ethan, played with aw-shucks warmth by comedian Rory Scovel. She gets her dream job at the makeup company’s HQ, where she becomes a trusted advisor to her boss, Avery LeClaire, played by Michelle Williams putting on a breathy falsetto. She even catches the eye of Avery’s dashing, muscular brother, played by British actor Tom Hopper. Her confidence appears to be ruined when she again hits her head and believes the magic is gone. (Seriously, get this woman to a doctor!) But — no spoilers here — the movie comes around to the lesson that confidence comes from within, and all you have to do to achieve your dreams is believe in yourself.
That predictable lesson is the big payoff for going along with what is ultimately a gimmick, which feels a little disappointing. The entire film might have been more thoughtful and nuanced had it dropped its central twist and instead offered us a more straightforward rom-com about a woman who’s insecure about her body while trying to succeed in the image-obsessed makeup industry. Schumer’s 2015 role in Trainwreck, which she also wrote, proved she’s a comedian who can pull off a rom-com with soul.
There are some other issues with I Feel Pretty beyond its paper-thin premise. As plenty of people pointed out on social media after the trailer dropped in February, the film seems to rely, at least somewhat, on us believing Renee is not conventionally attractive — despite the fact that Schumer, a blonde, able-bodied white woman, is fairly in-line with societal ideas of prettiness. The movie mitigates this by suggesting Renee’s issues with her body are mostly in her head, and certainly people of all shapes and sizes can, and do, feel badly about themselves for various reasons. Schumer herself has responded similarly to the backlash: In an interview with Vulture published Tuesday, she said I Feel Pretty is “not about an ugly troll becoming beautiful, it’s about a woman who has low self-esteem finding some.”
The film, however, undercuts its own insistence that beauty comes from within when cruel strangers side-eye Renee throughout the movie whenever she says aloud that she’s beautiful. The issue isn’t that Renee thinks she looks bad — the issue is that other characters seem to agree.
There’s also the lack of any people of color in Renee’s inner-circle. She, her best friends, her boyfriend and her boss are all white, while the women of color in the film — including Naomi Campbell and Saturday Night Live alum Sasheer Zamata — are relegated to the background, playing the beautiful women who intimidate Renee pre-transformation, the comic relief at SoulCycle or the fit and inspiring spin instructor. The movie has sympathy for Renee and her particular insecurities, which are offered up as universal without making space for any woman of color to share what might be unique feelings about beauty standards that have mostly been defined by white institutions.
A scene where Renee and Ethan are laying around in bed together is genuinely sweet, and Schumer’s admirable skills as a physical comedian are on full display throughout the film. But Bryant, Williams and Lauren Hutton (as the imposing makeup mogul) are all criminally underused.
And then there’s the film’s ending, which sees Renee deliver an inspiring speech about how it doesn’t matter what you look like as she shills a new, affordable makeup line for everyday women. Speaking to Vulture, Schumer herself has acknowledged the issues with the brand-friendly ending. But it’s still a letdown, as though the film can’t imagine a form of liberation beyond the watered-down feminism of a soap commercial.