In one of the most famous episodes of Inside Amy Schumer—an extended black-and-white parody of Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic film 12 Angry Men—a group of guys debate whether comedienne Amy Schumer is hot enough to even be on television. “It’s just another example of an average-looking chick who watched too much Top Model and now thinks she belongs on the cover of Fuckable magazine,” one of men sneers with indignation.
Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein’s I Feel Pretty also focuses on the psychological impact of being an “average-looking chick” in a world that seems to prize hotness above all else. Schumer plays Renee Barrett, an insecure New York City woman who, after hitting her head in a SoulCycle class, wakes up thinking she’s been transformed into a world-class beauty with a perfect body. She’s the same woman she’s always been, only now she’s filled with inflated self-confidence, which allows her to do all the things she was too afraid to try before, like talk to men and apply for her dream job.
Kohn and Silverstein’s screenplay never really taps into the inherent absurdity of its premise. Instead, with scene after scene playing on the ostensibly hilarious disconnect between Renee’s average looks and her boundless self-assurance, I Feel Pretty stretches its one-joke premise to the breaking point. Renee, while she doesn’t conjure the image of a classic bombshell, is hardly as grotesque as the film makes her out to be: stationary bikes collapse under the weight of her body; strangers mistake her for a man; and her gung-ho performance in a wet T-shirt contest is treated as if it were an outlandish spectacle on the order of Chris Farley’s Chippendales routine.
In many ways, Kohn and Silverstein’s film wants to have its cake and eat it too, mocking Renee’s boorishness and delusional self-esteem while simultaneously criticizing the societal standards of beauty that are the source of her insecurities. But if there’s a bit of hypocrisy here, it’s at least leavened by the earnestness with which I Feel Pretty treats Renee’s desire to be accepted. The film captures the small indignities of trying to conform to norms of feminine beauty, like shopping for makeup and squeezing into Spanx. Schumer taps into the raw sense of despair that grip women in the face of such societal pressures, capturing Renee’s shame in feeling unattractive with surprising pathos, while still getting the chance to display her penchant for playing messy but blithely self-confident women.
Schumer, however, is overshadowed by Michelle Williams, who steals every scene she’s in as Avery LeClaire, a high-end cosmetics executive who speaks with an ethereal baby-doll lilt. Avery is the sort of woman who not only has never stepped foot inside a Kohl’s, she doesn’t even know how to pronounce the name (“Ka-hools,” she calls it). Unfortunately, the character is trapped in a muddy and thematically confused subplot about Renee’s career.
The film contorts itself trying to find its way to a preordained conclusion: Renee giving a big presentation to launch a new line of cosmetics aimed at average women. Essentially a retread of the Dove Real Beauty campaign, the speech doubles as the film’s take-home bromide: Have confidence in yourself no matter what you look like. Not a bad message, but the fact that it comes in the form of a sales pitch for beauty products demonstrates the limits of the film’s insights. Rather than pointing the finger at a society that induces such wrenching insecurity—something Inside Amy Schumer did so acerbically—I Feel Pretty suggests the onus is on women to change their attitudes.