I Feel Pretty (2018)
Dirs Marc Silverstein, Abby Kohn; Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Emily Ratajkowski
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
Early in “I Feel Pretty,” Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) comes home from a night out with friends — where no men even look at her, and she can barely get the bartender’s attention— and stands undressed in front of the mirror, studying her Spanx-clad body critically. Such self-doubt is familiar to many women, especially in the current age of extreme media criticism and unattainable beauty standards. “I Feel Pretty” is full of small moments like this one that make us reflect on how damaging our unrealistic beauty standards are. In spite of these moments, the film’s intended message about the power of internal beauty and confidence over external beauty is not as powerful as it first seems, although the film is fun to watch and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Our protagonist, Renee, works in the digital department of cosmetics company Lily LeClaire, though her office is in an underground basement instead of in the company’s extravagant headquarters. She struggles with body image issues and low self-esteem; a boutique salesgirl informs her that she could “probably find [her] size online,” the photo she and two friends Vivian and Jane (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps, respectively) post on a dating site gets no views, and at a SoulCycle class she nearly dives under the counter in embarrassment when forced to ask for a “double-wide” shoe. Renee fantasizes about being beautiful and imagines how much easier her life would be if she were, at one point explaining how she has “always wondered what it feels like to be just undeniably pretty.” All of this changes thanks to a fateful SoulCycle class. Renee hits her head and wakes up believing that she is as beautiful as the women in the Cosmo magazines she reads and the YouTube tutorials she watches. While she doesn’t actually look any different, she gains a new level of confidence. Of course, she eventually hits her head again and returns to her normal state of mind, but in the meantime, her life turns around: she gets a new job as a receptionist at Lily LeClaire, right in the center of the office, and finds a new boyfriend.
The film’s approach to filming Renee changes drastically before and after she hits her head. When her self confidence is low, the shots are high angle, poorly or too brightly lit, and Schumer wears no makeup. When she walks past other women in their high heels and long legs, they seem to walk in slow motion, while the portrayal of her, up close and centered in the shot, is less flattering. This design is, ostensibly, intended to indicate how Renee views herself, especially in comparison to those around her. Yet this strategy also forces us to see her as unattractive at these moments; Renee’s view of herself — as conveyed in these shots — cannot be separated from the viewer’s gaze. After Renee hits her head, she is the bombshell, and the cinematography shifts in kind. She too struts in slow motion, now portrayed in low angle shots, with songs like Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too” in the background. The choice to film Renee in this way undermines the film’s intention. While the directors may have wanted to demonstrate how Renee sees herself, the film’s big joke is that her appearance doesn’t actually change when she hits her head — only her confidence does. Yet this fact is undercut through the cinematography because for us, Renee’s appearance does change. “I Feel Pretty” does not do enough to demonstrate how unfounded Renee’s dislike of her own body is; Schumer is white, blonde, and a normal weight, but the film’s methods of portrayal sometimes urge us to view her as unattractive anyway.
The most entertaining part of “I Feel Pretty” is Schumer herself, who is adept at weaseling her way into situations so awkward they are almost painful to watch. Her comedic timing is perfect, and her gait while toddling out of one SoulCycle class after splitting her pants is hilarious. She also pulls off quieter, more serious moments, like the one in front of the mirror or her late-night wish that she were beautiful. We have rarely seen this more vulnerable side of Schumer in her previous films, including “Trainwreck” and “Snatched.” Yet here, she easily gains both the audience’s sympathy and laughter in turn.
Michelle Williams as CEO Avery LeClaire is also a joy to watch. She glides on-screen and immediately shocks the audience with a high-pitched, squeaky voice unlike any I’ve ever heard her use. LeClaire is the kind of woman who literally cannot pronounce the word “Kohl’s” and, when she comes upon Renee eating lunch, says breezily, “Ah, Renee, I thought I smelled animal products.” It is clear that Williams is thoroughly enjoying herself in a comedic role, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well she fit it.
The film’s most glaring problem becomes evident during its culminating moment, when Renee realizes that she actually looked the same the whole time and her career achievements were due to her own strength and ability, not her looks. It’s a touching sentiment. Unfortunately, it occurs onstage at a huge product reveal for Lily LeClaire, and Renee uses her newfound confidence to encourage the audience to buy LeClaire cosmetics. It seems like a vicious catch-22: she finally realizes that physical beauty is not what matters, and so… she encourages her listeners to buy her cosmetics in order to first “fix” their outward appearances before then addressing their internal beauty? Her newly-discovered power leads her to turn right around and continue selling cosmetics as a path to internal strength rather than extolling the many virtues of internal strength on its own. This approach insinuates that it’s the responsibility of women to overcome unhealthy societal beauty standards and be confident without actually denouncing these ridiculous expectations themselves.
Renee’s very presence on-stage is also due to a questionable plot choice, as the only reason her supervisor promoted her is because Lily LeClaire is creating a lower-end product line in an attempt to expand its reach to a new target demographic: girls who don’t “have high-end makeup brushes” and “put their makeup on in the rearview mirror”—girls like Renee. When LeClaire looks at her, you can practically see dollar signs flashing in her eyes. While the film attempts to send the message that confidence is all that is needed to succeed, this is not even true for Renee — her success is grounded in her earning potential for the CEO.
On the surface, “I Feel Pretty” is good for a laugh and some entertaining Amy Schumer comedy. It has been hailed as subversive and revolutionary for its focus on unrealistic beauty standards and female self confidence, but there are deeper problems that the film does not address, such as failing to question Renee’s pitch of cosmetics having life-transforming capabilities. Ultimately, it still conforms to an extremely narrow and overwhelmingly white definition of beauty. Vivian sums up one of the film’s greatest frustrations well when she asks Renee “Why do you think everyone cares what you look like?” Undoubtedly, society is cruel to women who do not fit its specific notions of beauty, and many women suffer from low self-esteem and body image issues. But oftentimes, these perspectives are imposed on us by the media and by the likes of the very cosmetics company for which Renee works. Her job — convincing women they need cosmetics to look beautiful and/or change their lives — is, in fact, the reason why she is so insecure about her appearance in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle that “I Feel Pretty” propagates far more than it questions.