Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘I Feel Pretty’ Is Funny Despite Its Flaws

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I Feel Pretty is a straightforward comedy with a great big heart with surprisingly little nerve. This is an Amy Schumer vehicle, and as vehicles go, it’s not awful. Still, star vehicles generally work better when there’s someone at the wheel who understands why the star is a star. 

Renee (Amy Schumer) is a woman with low self-esteem. She has a job at a high-end cosmetics company, LeClaire, but it’s in the IT department. Her office is in the basement of a rented building in Chinatown.

A high-end boutique that keeps its server off-site in a poorly ventilated, run down basement with no security, is not long for this world. Of course, we overlook this because movies aren’t reality so much as reality-based. Still, you can be forgiven for not being able to swallow that bit of Hollywood screenwriting convolution.

We meet Renee’s friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips). The trio are seemingly inseparable but as to why these three are even friends is never really explored or even believable, frankly. I say this because Renee spends so much time complaining about how no one finds them attractive, and the other two, merely smile and nod, we wonder why they just don’t hang out and not tell Renee.

Bryant and Phillips are forced to play the literal “best friends.” Their sole purpose is to do nothing but support the main character. You would expect a movie like I Feel Pretty to sidestep these tropes or at the very least subvert them in some way.

It doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even seem aware of them.  Renee’s desperate attempt at happiness via her perception of beauty cause her to come off as shallow.  On a rainy night, she sees Big on television and becomes inspired. She rushes outside in the rain, throws a coin into a fountain, and wishes with all her heart, that she could be pretty.

While at a SoulCycle class, the next day, she bangs her head and passes out. When she wakes up, she sees herself and believes the wish has been granted. As plot devices go, this isn’t awful. The directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein never show us what Renee sees. We only see her as she always been.

The problem is that eventually, it makes Renee seem more silly and shallow than she was at the beginning. Toward the end when she confesses to Jane and Vivian about her wish, Jane rightfully rolls her eyes. “Do you have any idea how stupid you sound? Your biggest wish was to be pretty?” I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t the only one thinking that. 

I Feel Pretty is a movie whose plot thrives on the conceit of a character believing in magic even though the movie itself doesn’t. But there is magic in I Feel Pretty. Ironically it’s the middle portion. Once Renee transforms into her best self I Feel Pretty becomes an engaging and funny movie. I realize saying if a movie would only get rid of it’s beginning and end it would be better, is a bizarre critique, but here we are.

Renee goes after her dream job, a receptionist for the company. She gets the job due to her newfound confidence. Renee even gets to meet her idol Vivian LeClaire (Michelle Williams).

It must be said part of what makes I Feel Pretty work, despite its glaring flaws, is Williams. Williams high-pitched baby-voiced,  wide-eyed Vivian seems like she’s from another dimension as she seems to literally flutter about. Her inability to get anyone to take her seriously is at once bizarre and moving all at once. She’s clerked for Supreme Court Judges, has a business degree from Wharton, and still, people see her as an airhead. Her “goo goo g’joob” Vivian LeClaire is worth the price of admission alone.

Frankly, when I Feel Pretty tackles the notion that everybody feels insecure about how they look and are perceived, it makes you forget its flaws. The world seems shocked by Renee’s exuberant confidence, not just in her looks, but in her abilities and skills. Even her new boyfriend Ethan (Rory Scovel) seems entranced by Renee’s outsized confidence.

For the most part Renee is a character we want to hug, and by and large, I Feel Pretty wants to hug us back. Theoretically, the movie is rooted in the notion of self-love and to be happy with yourself. It’s self-help in cinematic form.

As I watched I Feel Pretty I was reminded of a conversation in My Dinner With Andre; the Louis Malle movie of just two men talking. One of the conversations the two men have is about the explosion of self-help books. Far from being cynical, the two men were deeply moved by people’s desire to be happy and loved.

I felt much the same way about most of I Feel Pretty. So much of what it’s trying to say is universal. Everybody wants to love and to be loved. Even beautiful women like Vivian or Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) suffer from low self-esteem.

Schumer’s comedy is based on scathing indictments of how society treats women. Brutally honest and fearless Schumer is perfect for Renee. Except for Marc Silverstein and Abby Kohn, who wrote and directed I Feel Pretty, seem to skim on the scathing commentary. To some extent, this is understandable considering the aforementioned universality of the movie’s tone. 

Still, one can’t help but wonder if Schumer had been allowed more of a hand in the script if the movie would have had more of an edge to it. As it stands we’re left with a heroine who hits her head and thinks she’s pretty, hits her head a second time, thinks she’s ugly again and gives an emotional crowd-pleasing speech at a gala for a major cosmetics company. The message is muddled by the narrative of the movie itself.

When Renee believes the spell has been broken, we are forced to spend what feels like an eternity with a woman so shallow and naive as to believe her boyfriend wouldn’t recognize her. Renee believes she is under a spell but the movie doesn’t, and neither does anyone else. A rift begins to form between us and her character when we start to realize it was less about being happy with yourself and more with being pretty.

That’s the problem with I Feel Pretty. Silverstein and Kohn never clearly decide for themselves what it is driving Renee or even what they want to say. It never seems to occur to them that the main character whose sole professional aspiration is to be a receptionist is wildly at odds with the “achieve your dreams you can do anything” message it wants to broadcast to the world.

Schumer’s talent though is such that despite all of this I found myself a little choked up towards the end. While giving the big “speech” that every character is compelled by screenwriting 101 law to give in movies like this, she sees her “before” and “after” pictures. She is stunned at the revelation. Schumer’s face perfectly illustrates her inner thoughts and her realization that she was the magic.

I Feel Pretty is an unqualified mess, but it has its charms and laughs, largely due to Schumer and Williams. Its heart is in the right place. More than that though, it’s not afraid to admit it has one.

Image courtesy of STXFilms

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