To say Renee Bennett has low self-esteem is to say that the Pacific Ocean is kinda wet. Renee, Amy Schumer’s character in “I Feel Pretty,” has serious body-image issues — until she falls off a bike at a Soul Cycle class, hits her head, and wakes up believing she’s the hottest woman on the planet. Nothing about her has changed externally, but internally, the delusion empowers Renee. It’s like a classic body-switch movie (“Big,” “Freaky Friday,” etc.), except that it’s the same woman.
Renee decides to forsake her job in the online-ordering department of a high-end cosmetics company to become the receptionist at its headquarters, where she’s paid less but is surrounded by supermodels she now considers herself the visual equal of. She thinks construction workers on the street are whistling at her and that the guy behind her in line at the dry cleaners, who asks an innocent question, is really hitting on her and wants her phone number. She befriends one of the “hot women” in the Soul Cycle class (Emily Ratajkowski) and is stunned to discover that, while men fall over themselves in her presence, she’s insecure, too.
The fashion company, Lily LeClaire, is run by Avery LeClaire, played with a high voice by Michelle Williams, in her funniest performance to date. In an inspired bit of casting, her grandmother Lily, the founder of the company, is played by Lauren Hutton. They’re about to start a “diffusion” line of products for not-so-high-end consumers, and see Renee — whose outward appearance hasn’t changed in their eyes — as a gateway to women who aren’t a 10, so they bring her to consult on what the company could sell at Target or similar retailers.
Amy Schumer’s performance is a big part of what makes “I Feel Pretty” work. Like many other big-screen comic actors who command your attention, she has no shame in doing silly physical comedy, showing off her body (in a PG-13 way), and allowing herself to be the butt of others’ jokes. She had me laughing out loud several times, including one scene where she enters a bikini contest (emceed by Dave Attell, in a hilarious cameo) and takes over the stage completely. Schumer, who produced but didn’t write the movie, is always pretty good at including other funny women in the cast — keep an eye out for Nikki Glaser, Sasheer Zamata, and Rachel Feinstein.
While “I Feel Pretty” satirizes the fashion and cosmetics worlds, it also has strong messages about female empowerment and the wrong-headed view of real women in our world, as opposed to the airbrushed and surgically-enhanced versions that populate magazine covers and modern entertainment. Several women in the audience at the screening I attended not only laughed but also applauded a couple of speeches. That’s going to create a lot of word of mouth in the movie’s target demographic, the same women who went to see previous rom-coms by writer/directors Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein (“Never Been Kissed,” “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and “How To Be Single”).
Now to a few problems I had with “I Feel Pretty.”
First is is the idea that Schumer/Renee is some kind of big, fat, ugly duckling who the rest of the world shields its eyes from. It’s ludicrous, in much the same way it was silly to have Michelle Pfeiffer pretend to be a Plain Jane in Garry Marshall’s “Frankie and Johnny.” The unappealing looks are actually on some of the Lily LeClaire supermodel-esque employees, with their overdone cosmetics and extreme hairstyles that might be worn on a fashion show runway but never anywhere else in public. A couple of them are so ultra-thin that if they swallowed an olive, they’d look pregnant.
Second is the movie’s predictability. In her attempts to be one of the cool, beautiful women, Renee abandons her “normal-looking” friends, played by Busy Phillips and Aidy Bryant. Anyone who has seen any similarly-themed movie will know that at some point, Renee will change her attitude and return to their fold, wiser and happier. There’s also Ethan, the new boyfriend (Rory Scovel) who’s willing to put up with pretty much anything Renee says or does. Yes, guys will overlook several levels of insanity from a woman they hope to sleep with, but at a certain point, you have to notice that you’re with someone whose head is not screwed on straight.
Third, one of the production companies that put money into “I Feel Pretty” is Huayi Brothers Pictures, a Chinese entertainment company that’s branching out and investing in more Hollywood projects. As soon as I saw their name in the opening credits, I knew there would be some part of the movie that would try to appeal to a Chinese audience (movies that do so have a better chance of playing in theaters there). Sure enough, Renee’s first office is in Chinatown, where the camera pans lovingly past the Chinese businesses in the neighborhood. There are at least a couple of scenes in Chinese restaurants, too. Okay, they wrote the check, but must the pandering be so blatant?
Even with my complaints, I still left the theater in a good mood and with more respect for Schumer, who I was already a fan of, back to the days of her Comedy Central show. “I Feel Pretty” isn’t as good as “Trainwreck” (which I called the best comedy of 2015 — here’s my review), but it is better than her last project, “Snatched” (in which she co-starred with Goldie Hawn — here’s my review).
I give “I Feel Pretty” a 7.5 out of 10.