Pre-release buzz can either be a fantastic thing — becoming a trending topic on Twitter and turning into all anyone can talk or think about for weeks on end! — or a potentially fatal one — doing both those things but for all the wrong reasons. In the case of the Amy Schumer-led flick I Feel Pretty, it pulled in the latter, sparking static-charged controversy after distributor STXfilms rolled out the first promotional footage, which was met with eye rolls so dramatic, they’d make Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man look like an amateur. With so many slamming the flick as using body-shaming jokes to get cheap laughs, it was evident that I Feel Pretty would have to end up filled with a feel-good story, genuine moments of heart and humor, and smatterings of signature Schumer sauciness to make up for its rocky road to theaters.
Unfortunately, it didn’t.
Helmed by longtime creative duo Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (Never Been Kissed, He’s Just Not That Into You, How to Be Single) in a rickety directorial debut, I Feel Pretty is neither the post-Trainwreck second coming of Schumer on the silver screen nor the relatively high-concept comedy its log-line proclaims it to be. It’s not even the kind of Judd Apatow-esque venture it had the potential for (he directed Schumer in her aforementioned breakout Trainwreck), or the sweetly sentimental but still side-splitting good time that Kohn and Silverstein’s past works have so clearly been. Instead, I Feel Pretty is disappointing and hypocritical, failing to deliver on the unique premise and feminist message it seemed to promise.
Schumer leads I Feel Pretty as Renee Bennett, a New Yorker trapped in a tiny underground office, toiling away on a website for Lily LeClair cosmetics. Too unsure of herself to speak up about her unhappiness both at work and in her personal life, Renee is the epitome of meek and mild — down on her luck and the butt of most jokes. She doesn’t fit into “straight sizes” trendy boutique shops carry. She gets no attention on dating sites, not even a pity “like.” She stands vulnerable in front of a mirror one evening, wearing nothing but a pair of organ-squishing nude Spanx, a bra, and two tiny pools of tears in her eyes. And most embarrassingly for her, she requires a double-wide shoe size at her SoulCycle spin class — the very same one that suddenly, miraculously reverses her insecurity and self-doubt.
After tossing a coin in a fountain one evening and wishing to become undeniably beautiful, Renee falls off her (double-wide-shoe-fitted) bike and conks her head, an accident that spurs SoulCycle instructor Tasha (the exquisitely funny Sasheer Zamata) to beg her not to sue and grants Renee with the belief that she’s the most gorgeous creature to walk the planet. The only catch is that Renee isn’t the hubba-hubba hottie she’s spent her whole life wanting to be. She hasn’t changed a bit, but her mind has her thinking otherwise.
Strutting her newfound assurance, Renee womans up and applies for a receptionist job at LeClair (she can finally get out of that godforsaken basement) under the Avery LeClaire, played with surprising verve by Michelle Williams. She continues spreading the wings she never had, becoming the social butterfly amongst best friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps); has no trouble starting a romantic relationship with Ethan (Rory Scovel), who find her fearless demeanor irresistible; and befriends model-stunning Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski), who gives Renee a wake-up call in teaching her that no one is immune to self-esteem issues. Eventually, Renee’s heightened sense of self becomes a bother to those around her, particularly her best friends, whom she constantly wants to be “better,” which is simply her way of saying “be like the new me.”
But that isn’t the biggest problem in I Feel Pretty. Though list is lofty, all issues share a common theme: The rules of the magic SoulCycle spell are inconsistent. And so, too, is the entire movie because of it.
First, it’s odd that Renee doesn’t see a doctor after sustaining a literal life-altering head injury and that none of her friends tell her that she looks exactly the same, but it’s even more bizarre that she still gets anxious and bashful when conversing with a handsome man mid-delusion and shacks up with a sweet, nice-looking guy when she could have gone after a total beefcake. If she wanted the receptionist job because she believed it was a position only pretty women could fill, why didn’t she seek out a male partner that she thought only pretty heterosexual women could have?
I Feel Pretty also pushes prettiness as being intrinsically tied to confidence. It wants watchers to walk away knowing Renee isn’t magnetic because of her outward appearance but because she truly thinks she’s sizzling hot stuff. So why do we see people reacting to Renee as if she’s some monster that crawled out of a sewer pipe before she smacked her noggin on her stationary bike, and why are we urged to laugh at Renee’s aggressive aplomb after — especially when she joins a bikini contest and saunters on stage in front of a dozen thin models?
While it’s likely that writer-directors Kohn and Silverstein will argue that scene in particular is intended to celebrate Renee’s (and, in turn, Schumer’s) boldness and show that no one should compare themselves to others, it feels like the polar opposite, like viewers are meant to cackle at the bump-and-grind charade and focus on the differences between Schumer’s body and those of the runway-ready women who stand behind her. What makes that moment even worse is that Renee doesn’t end up winning the contest — she loses to a woman significantly smaller and less showy than her, completely undercutting the message the film is trying to sell: that the sheer belief in your beauty is more powerful than beauty itself.
The saddest part of I Feel Pretty is that it might have been a good movie had it been done better (read: had it not been cleaned, scaled, and gutted like a fish by shoddy writing and an undercooked, confused plot). A core narrative is there. Talent in Schumer and the entire ensemble cast is there. A modern-day fable feel, like it’s an updated spin on Big with Schumer’s Renee taking Tom Hanks’ place and her SoulCycle teacher acting as a mystical fairy godmother, is there. But nothing comes of it except a barrage of conflicting messages about self-esteem and what it means to be “pretty.”
Though lacking in subtlety, intelligence, and a clear sense of focus, I Feel Pretty doesn’t seem entirely unsympathetic. It doesn’t quite go full Shallow Hal, thank goodness. However, the film is a different kind of duplicitous, apparently wanting it both ways: to encourage viewers to guffaw at a bigger-bodied woman feeling confident in her own skin and to preach to them body positivity. Does the end really justify the malign means? Hardly.
What would have been a movie that said something about the importance of self-acceptance, pulled out plenty of laughs (and a few tears, too), and made women feel good about themselves was anything but. The only thing you’ll feel after seeing I Feel Pretty is pretty damn crummy.