This is a film that stirred up controversy, even outrage, well before it was released, not so much because of its actual content or message, but because of what has been read into the story, the ways in which its theme triggers sensitive topics. It is a fairly lightweight comedy whose main attraction was the presence of ‘raunchy’ comic Amy Schumer in the lead role. The storyline purported to offer a little more depth than a typical rom-com, in that it dealt with female self-esteem and society’s emphasis on a woman’s appearance. That alone, apparently, was enough to set off enthusiastic support by some, indignation by others. Feminist spokespersons found it an important statement, or else a potentially important statement with fatal flaws. Critics, for the most part, found it pointless and unfunny. The film has received viewer ratings which, even taking bad reviews into account, were so improbably low as to cause conspiracy theories about alt-right men’s groups contriving to flood web pages with one-star ratings as part of an anti-woman crusade.
The movie is neither good enough, nor bad enough, to justify such intensity on either side.
The story comes from the successful rom-com generating team of Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein (He’s Just Not That Into You, How To Be Single, Never Been Kissed), who also co-directed. Amy Schumer plays Renée Bennett, a woman plagued by spectacularly low self-esteem, particularly about her appearance. Her actual appearance, it may be worth noting, is average; not stellar, but also not nearly as dreadful as Renée imagines. To make matters worse – and to provide material for the film’s farcical theme – Renée works for a cosmetics company almost entirely staffed by stunning and fashionable young women. In the tradition of countless Hollywood movie plots which cause magical changes in unlikely ways (which I Feel Pretty has the good sense to jokingly reference), Renée suffers a severe blow to the head during a comically morale-breaking session at an exercise club full of slim, pretty people. The injury causes her to suddenly see herself as flawlessly beautiful.
Renée’s new, completely false image of herself changes her life completely. Convinced she is now slender and lovely, she suddenly has the confidence to apply for her dream job, wear attractive clothes, chat with strangers, and start a relationship with a friendly man she encounters in a shop. The relationship sub-plot serves to make a point; her new boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovel), enjoys Renée’s self-assurance, which he finds justifiably surprising in someone who looks like Renée, but he comes to like her for qualities she had before her supposed transformation.
Much of the comedy in I Feel Pretty comes from the contrast between the ‘new’ Renée’s self-image and the way others continue to see her. She calmly assumes that she fits in with fashion models, that she belongs in the front desk position she applies for, that she is welcome and admired wherever she goes, oblivious to the confused or contemptuous looks of the truly attractive. To that extent, it seems as if Renée herself, her inadequate looks, are being laughed at, as some viewers have complained. But the laughs are also at the expense of the pretty people who unthinkingly try to exclude her, such as those at work who are, at first, unable to recognise the value of her business insights. The humour in Renée’s adoption of a ‘beautiful woman’ persona, complete with an effortless sense of entitlement, is also directed away from her and toward the superficial attitudes that allow the privilege of the pretty to flourish. Amy Schumer’s physical comedy, a big part of the film, is funny partly because it involves a plain woman confidently taking the liberties granted, by unspoken rule, only to beautiful women; but again, the humour is largely at the expense of the system whose rules she is breaking. Renée also runs into trouble when she lets her sense of privilege come between herself and her friends of many years, and even between herself and her own personal standards, offering a suggestion of the negative impact the emphasis on beauty might have even on the young and attractive.
As a straightforward comedy of manners, I Feel Pretty succeeds, and is trifling but amusing. The deeper message, which many viewers seem to find inadequate or wrong, is barely there. The climactic moral of the story regarding female self-esteem is delivered by Renée herself (newly enlightened as to her real appearance) as part of a promotion of her cosmetics company – appropriately, as it barely rises above the level of a makeup ad, and seems to be tacked on out of a sense of obligation. The same applies to the heavy-handed addition of a female character who is beautiful yet still, amazingly, suffers from low self-esteem. The film is a reasonably funny bit of fluff which seems to inappropriately trigger strong feelings in some – possibly because the genuine issues of women’s view of themselves, and how it is imposed on them, has been given so little attention in film, that even a frivolous comedy that alludes to it has an unwarranted impact. Any real message is hidden between the lines, among minor, passing bits of dialogue, as when one of Renée’s friends scolds her because her ultimate dream is to be beautiful. Who, the friend asks, would have something so silly as their fondest wish? Of course, women need bigger, better dreams than to be thin and pretty. Let that stand as the film’s moral, and enjoy the rest of it for the fun little romp it is.