It may not have been especially successful with the critics, but I Feel Pretty is easily Amy Schumer’s best film. The premise is clear to anyone who has seen the trailer, with Schumer playing Renee, a perpetually single New Yorker who knocks her head during a spin class session and wakes up to believe that she has turned into a supermodel. What ensues has ramifications across her personal life, both for her relationship with her best friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philips) and for her new relationship with Ethan (Rory Scovel), a systems operator that she picks up at a local drycleaner. At the same time, it has big implications for her professional life as well, finally propelling her to ditch her basement IT job at a major fashion outlet to secure a position as receptionist on the top floor, where she helps her boss Avery LeClaire, played by Michelle Williams in a terrific cameo, to help market a new line of “diffusion” products aimed at a more modest demographic, all the while certain that she represents the best possible features that the company has to offer.
One of the major criticisms levelled against the film is a bit of a barbed compliment, with one reviewer after another noting that Schumer is more than good looking enough, and certainly not bad looking enough for the role to be plausible. To say that Schumer is too good looking for the film is not really the point, however, since her entire career has been defined by her unusual position at the very cusp of what Hollywood considers to be attractive feminine features. Being on the cusp of any class system makes you peculiarly aware of the system, and I Feel Pretty draws upon recent trends, in comedies of attraction, towards a class model of attractiveness, suggesting that physical beauty needs to be held accountable as a form of privilege like any other. The point is made succinctly in the opening montage sequence, in which we cycle through all the ways in which Renee’s features force her below the threshold of everyday visibility, which isn’t to say – as some critics have suggested – that the film makes “shallow” bids for physical perfection, but that it is honest about the enormous thresholds that most women have to surpass simply to be properly visible in most quotidian spaces, along with the fact that most women simply aren’t visible.
With the threshold set almost impossibly high for women to be anything other than invisible, this opening sequence sets the scene for a film that is perhaps more honest about physical attraction than any other romantic comedy I’ve seen – a romcom, in other words, for an era in which the metrics and algorithms of online dating make it impossible to conceive of physical attractiveness as anything other than as a kind of class matrix. At the same time, however, I Feel Pretty is less invested in the spectacle of Schumer’s body as an abject or grotesque spectacle than any of her other films or stand-up specials, with most of the key comic sequences focusing upon how easily her body fades into the background. It’s the kind of gesture that’s designed to make you realise that Schumer’s “crudeness” is simply what’s required to maintain a semblance of visibility in a culture in which only the most marginal and manicured of bodies can be seen, not unlike the ways in which the supposed hyperbole of certain forms of African-American cultural expression are tantamount to an insistence on black visibility above all else. Yet Schumer also holds back from her earlier, “cruder” self here, instead promulgating her body with a frank, straightforward and disarmingly casual courage that feels like the shift into a new stage in her comic and cinematic body of work.
For that reason, the film is often strongest when Schumer is not explicitly playing it for laughs or for satire, and is simply occupying the kind of aspirational film normally made for someone with a different body type. The effect is extraordinary – witnessing an actress negotiating, navigating and, finally, narrativising her way through an aspirational narrative that normally doesn’t come in her size. In the process, I Feel Pretty beautifully clarifies that aspirational female narratives – at least in Hollywood – are nearly always narratives of physical aspiration, in which attractive female leads manage to “discover” their inherent attractiveness by way of professional, emotional or familial self-discovery. In a deft twist on that formula, however, Renee here aspires to have the body type that might make her worthy of that aspirational narrative in the first place, as the film dissociates the aspiration from the bodily substrate that justifies and enables it, only to then reconnect the two by way of Renee’s “delusional” fantasy. In a nostalgic throwback, the film frequently quotes 80s narratives of transformation, focusing on Big and Working Girl in particular, but the nostalgia is short-lived, as Schumer queries the ways in which these films set the standard for who could aspire to aspiration in the first place, as well as the specific and stable underlying traits needed to render characters eligible for this kind of transformation as well.
In the process, Schumer, as in so much of her stand-up, both captures and embodies an objectification so endemic to female representation in Hollywood that it can barely be articulated by the language of Hollywood, instead requiring her to simply occupy and inhabit that objectification in order to draw out its neuroses. While the effects are hilarious – Schumer can’t not be funny – the result is much closer to a drama, and especially a workplace drama, than the trailers might suggest. Certainly, it comes to a comic ending of sorts, but the final note is perhaps the extraordinary moment at which Renee suffers a second head knock and wakes up to see that she has reverted back to her “old”self. It’s at this moment that you really see Schumer’s emotional range, as she manages to evoke that first, primal realisation that she doesn’t live up to, and won’t ever live up to, Hollywood’s suffocating standards of what a woman should be. Similarly, it’s remarkable to see how deftly Schumer’s body language changes once Renee believes that she is in fact a supermodel, and how deftly Schumer can act with her body during these moments. All kinds of little details would probably become more visible with a second viewing, but I was especially struck by the “new” Renee’s willingness to take the lead when walking with new people, accelerating to the forefront of whatever conversational momentum is taking place.
At the same time, there’s a darkly comic thrust to seeing how Renee’s mere assumption of attractiveness and visibility disarms those around her – these moments are, really, the core of the film – most of whom are unable to respond outside of some variation of pity; the peculiar pity reserved for women who consider themselves to be more visible than they really are. It’s the same pity that Schumer defies by simply inhabiting these roles – a pity that seems to turn to rage for many viewers, especially male viewers, when the object of it doesn’t conceive of herself as pitiable, either in actuality or aspiration. For the provocative premise of the film’s middle act is that being attractive – or seeing herself as attractive – doesn’t make Renee superficial, shallow or vapid, as much as some critics might have liked the film to arrive at that conclusion immediately. Instead, having confidence in her looks actually allows Renee to become more herself, to the point where Ethan finally confesses his love to her by telling her, in Central Park, that “You’re so yourself.” It’s a moment that reminded me of the equally provocative suggestion, in Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, that anti-depressant drugs actually make some patients more themselves, since beauty is also presented here as a kind of drug, and as gateway to unrealised personality traits and aspirations. Within that context, the final appeal to inner beauty feels somewhat hollow, like a mantra that has been imposed on the film by the studio, or even like a mantra of Hollywood itself, a way of resigning women who don’t meet its standards to their place, which is perhaps why it gradually starts to feel, in the final minutes, that Schumer herself is still searching and yearning for another line of flight.
That’s enacapsulated in the beautiful closing scene, in which Renee reconciles with Ethan – as her “real” self – before returning to claim the workplace as her own. Waiting outside his apartment, she prepares herself to meet him, all the while looking up, as if expecting him to descend from above. When he does come, however, it’s from below – he lives in the bottom apartment – meaning he’s looking up at her, even as she now realises that there was a security camera trained on her the whole time, with the result that he also saw her preparations. In the way she positions herself, so delicately, between the submissive and dominant positions in this particular mise-en-scene, lies the beauty of the way in which Schumer has brokered her physical appearance, time and again, against the confines of a Hollywood system in which it might as well not exist. While she’s always funny, in I Feel Pretty, the results are more deeply dramatic than ever before, which finally makes this feel like something of a watershed role for Schumer, a transition to the next part of her career.