Romantic comedies are not as popular or as prevalent as they used to be, which is why it’s so noteworthy when a film like I Feel Pretty is released into the world. The rom-com is typically a genre geared towards women. At its best, it can be liberating, delightful, and empowering for a demographic that is all too often underserved and misunderstood by Hollywood; at its worst, it reinforces harmful gendered status quos. As a representative of the genre, I Feel Pretty is somewhere in between those two goal posts.
I Feel Prettystars Amy Schumer as Renee, a woman who feels invisible in what she percieves to be not-prettiness. When she hits her head during a particularly brutal, life-changing SoulCycle class, she starts to see herself as the most traditionally beautiful woman in the world. No longer does she spend her time aspirationally doing YouTube makeup tutorials, but rather actively going for the job, man, and life she has always dreamed about.
Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, I Feel Pretty is a movie with important ambitions that never fully delivers on them. Renee begins the film as a relatively relatable character. Any woman who has ever felt beauty standards forced upon them, which is to say all of us, can most likely see something of herself in Renee. In the moments when Schumer’s performance as Renee is grounded in a recognizable reality, as is the case when Renee enters a bar bikini contest and performs without her usual inhibitions, the premise and character work. However, as the film progresses, and Renee’s struggles then rely too much on the hard-to-swallow premise, our heroine falls into some of the very tropes the film is trying to subvert.
I Feel Pretty takes some of its narrative cues from Big, even paying homage to the Tom Hanks film at one point in the movie when a depressed Renee uses it as inspiration to make a coin-throwing wish to become beautiful. It’s a good instinct, but a homage that doesn’t work because of the two movie’s fundamental differences.
In Big the fim’s boy protagonist is transformed into a 30-year-old man overnight. In I Feel Pretty, the film’s adult woman protagonist bumps her head and thinks she has transformed into a traditionally hotter version of herself overnight. One has proper fantasy elements; the other centers on a woman who suffers brain damage from the multiple head injuries she sustains over the course of the film. The fact that neither of Renee’s two friends (played by Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips) sit her down to figure out exactly what is going on with her only undermines the apparent specialness of their relationships, something the movie tries to half-heartedly call on in its climax.
With Big the audience is in on Josh Baskin’s big secret; we are his confidante as he experiences the world in this new way. In I Feel Pretty, the dramatic irony works against the audience’s relationship with Renee. We know her “secret,” but we also understand that she is not truly seeing what she is seeing. We are asked to laugh along with her friends and colleagues as they laugh at Renee’s foolishness, at her inability to understand and conform to society’s gender expectations and standards.
Renee, our protagonist, is often the butt of the joke, and it doesn’t feel good. Even at her most unlikeable, Schumer’s character in Trainwreck was relatable. She was flawed, but in a recognizable way. We were on her side, even when she was making bad choices. Renee is a cariacture, far better suited for a one-off comedy sketch than a feature film. She also comes off like a self-involved, delusional idiot, which is not a great look for a movie purportedly working to subvert the ridiculous stereotype that beautiful women and women who care about beauty must also be dumb.
I Feel Pretty has its moments of insightful subversion, though they are too few and far between. Renee’s sensitive, insightful love interest, Ethan (Rory Scovel), pushes against the rigid boundaries of masculinity in some interesting ways, touching on the fact that our society’s gender norms put men in a box as much as they do women. Michelle Williams plays a weird, whispy-voiced makeup mogul in a delightful supporting role that is more fun than filling.
There is also a subplot involving the forming of a casual friendship between Renee and a traditionally attractive woman named Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) whom she meets at SoulCycle. Renee’s relationship with Mallory is not only the kind of casual female camaraderie that I recognize from my own life that rarely gets depicted on screen, but it also complexifies the model persona. Elsewhere in the film, women who look like models are often depicted like the superficial objects society tries to make them out to be, but Mallory is more of a fully formed human who, despite her beauty, has problems and emotions just like anyone else. Imagine that! It’s unfortunate that this is a lesson Renee, as an adult woman, has yet to learn.
Ultimately, I Feel Pretty is much too narrow in its scope of womanhood and its exploration of a very important, topical subject to succeed. Almost all of the women who inhabit this world are white, affluent, and conform to gender norms. The most “subversive” of its female characters comes in the form of Renee’s friend Jane (Busy Philipps), who is treated like a pariah by a snobby Renee for daring to show up to a date without wearing makeup or doing her hair.
It’s unclear if a film with this kind of high-concept, hard-to-swallow premise could have ever been salvaged. While there is something to be said about the power of self-perception and confidence, I Feel Pretty too often treats sexism like an individual problem to be overcome with a pep talk and some contouring, rather than the complex, systemic-based discrimination it truly is. This subject matter demands better.