‘I Feel Pretty’ has great potential, doesn’t live up to itFilm Review by Katie Walsh
The Amy Schumer vehicle “I Feel Pretty” tackles a very real epidemic — the crisis of confidence. Low self-esteem is part of the human condition for people of any age, gender or race, but it’s particularly virulent and destructive in the young female population, resulting in eating disorders, imposter syndrome, plastic surgery, billions of dollars spent on beauty products, diets, shapewear and generally a serious failure to thrive.
Writing/directing duo Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein take on this issue in a high-concept comedy with the notion that it’s all in your head. “Change your mind, change your life,” chants a SoulCycle instructor, Luna (Angela M. Davis, a real-life celeb instructor whose motivational speeches have inspired Beyoncé and Oprah on the bike). What if we all just woke up one day and decided to be confident?
Renee (Schumer) is crippled by low self-esteem. She’s obsessed with beauty — and her own perceived lack of it. When she takes a tumble from her SoulCycle bike, the head injury makes her think she’s hot stuff. She scores her dream job and gets the guy, thanks to a simple attitude adjustment. It’s a powerful depiction of just what that kind of mentality shift can do. The way Renee loves herself makes people love her in kind.
But despite this inherently positive message, “I Feel Pretty” bungles the execution. Schumer might not be a supermodel, but she still benefits from being an average-size blonde white woman, and therefore, isn’t quite the right performer for the role. The way the modelesque women who populate the beauty company Lily LeClair recoil in horror from Renee is implausible at best (though Michelle Williams is inspired in her very specific fashionista performance choices). Her self-love is believable, but the way some people react to that doesn’t ring true.
In addition to the inherent premise issues, “I Feel Pretty” falters from some serious structural instability, too. Renee is required to undergo a few drastic personality changes along the way, but in an undercooked subplot with her friends, played by Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant, it’s as if she has multiple personality disorder. Serious story connective tissue is also missing from her rock bottom moment, downward spiraling after realizing she’s back to her normal self, only to bounce back after hearing that a gorgeous fellow SoulCycler (Emily Ratajkowski) was dumped once. Her rapid turnaround is enough to incur some serious whiplash.
“I Feel Pretty” does succeed in its charming romance. Standup comedian Rory Scovel makes his leading man debut, and he’s the breakout of the movie. His Ethan is also insecure, and what draws him to Renee is her sheer confidence. You watch him fall in love with her as she competes in a Coney Island bikini contest, in one of the funniest sequences of the film, thanks to Schumer’s unabashed dance moves and Scovel’s nervous reactions. “Can I be you when I grow up?” he asks in awe. The romance is a bright spot that feels real in an otherwise muddled film.
“I Feel Pretty” is imperfect, but it can spark important conversations about confidence and the way we feel about ourselves. But it shies away from the heart of the matter. Renee works at a beauty company, but we never stop to examine the industry’s practices of keeping women feeling bad so they continue spending money trying to feel pretty.
Her radical self-acceptance is downright revolutionary, because the advertising industry runs on self-loathing. And yet, her redemption arc isn’t to reject this system, but double down on it. It might now come packaged with an empowering speech, but it remains a vicious cycle of capitalist consumption based on feeling inadequate. The film wants to encourage us to find our beauty within, while turning a blind eye to those external, industrial forces that profit from our insecurity. “I Feel Pretty” boldly takes on our crisis of confidence, but it sacrifices all of its radical potential to tie everything up in a nice, pretty bow.
Walsh writes for Tribune News Service.