At the outset of “I Feel Pretty,” Amy Schumer plays a woman who doesn’t believe she’s beautiful. If you agree with her, then the comedian’s high-concept body-image satire — in which a nasty concussion gives her supposedly schlubby character an empowering shot of self-confidence — is liable to be hilarious. If, on the other hand, you accept that real women have curves, then this full-frontal takedown of the fashion industry’s impossible beauty standards actually feels quite tragic, since the on-fire actress comes across as trying way too hard to convince herself of what anyone can plainly see: that she’s amazing.
Unfortunately for many American women — but conceivably good for the movie’s box office chances — contemporary audiences have been so corrupted by heavily airbrushed magazine spreads, surgically enhanced supermodels, and unrealistically proportioned porn stars that they’ll readily accept Schumer as a dowdy fixer-upper. In a fearless move, the “Trainwreck” star plays Renee Bennett, a voluptuous yet deeply insecure woman working on the periphery of the New York beauty industry who aspires to the unattainable ideal her company represents (her office is buried in a Chinatown basement halfway across town from Lily LeClaire Cosmetics’ fancy-schmancy HQ, where even the interns are a perfect 10).
Demanding hours of prep each morning — and even then, made possible only by an invaluable assist from Spanx — Renee’s short-skirt and all-pastel wardrobe suggests that she’s doing her best to conform to a style better suited to the Maxim centerfolds who comprise 90% of the film’s female supporting cast. Apart from a pair of consistently hilarious yet realistic-looking gal pals played by Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps, nearly every woman on-screen looks like she was designed by the retrograde computer program two John Hughes hornballs used to conjure virtual girlfriend Kelly LeBrock in “Weird Science.”
As far as Renee is concerned, she can’t possibly compete with the glamazons around her — until a humiliating spin-class accident knocks her for a loop. In an original riff on such outlandish yet endearing body-swap classics as “13 Going on 30” and “Big,” Renee suddenly believes that she’s been upgraded to a flawless super-bod. The twist: The only thing that’s changed is how she sees herself.
A shamelessly formulaic feature-directing debut from longtime writing partners Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (whose 1999 Drew Barrymore comedy “Never Been Kissed” established their brand of gentle peer-pressure critique), this well-meaning, female-targeted romantic comedy aspires to make everyone feel beautiful. Even so, its technique for doing so is to put its self-esteem-impaired heroine through a series of mortifying social situations as Renee constantly measures herself against her exaggeratedly hot competition, coming up short every time.
In what could be read as a direct rebuke to movies like “Shallow Hal” (1999’s poor-taste Farrelly brothers comedy, in which Gwyneth Paltrow embodied a morbidly obese woman’s “inner beauty”), “I Feel Pretty” makes it a point never to reveal how Renee perceives her rose-tinted reflection in the mirror. Meanwhile, audiences are invited to share the other characters’ bewilderment as this once-awkward wallflower starts acting like a world-class diva, mistaking construction-worker whistles and innocuous banter with complete strangers (like Rory Scovel, who plays the cute, doesn’t-know-what-hit-him guy she picks up at the dry cleaner) as evidence of her hotness.
Before the accident, Renee never would have found the nerve to apply for the out-of-reach receptionist job at her company’s main office — which those who’ve come before have used as a springboard to a modeling career. But as luck would have it, Renee’s imaginary makeover coincides with a new inclusivity initiative by company founder Lily LeClaire (a smartly cast Lauren Hutton), who’s launching a “diffusion line” designed to serve those who don’t roll out of bed looking like Rebecca Romijn.
Disgusted that none of the elitist ladies working for her — including fashion-zombie granddaughter Avery (Michelle Williams, reprising her helium-high Marilyn voice in what is hands-down the funniest performance of her career) — seems to know the first thing about budget-conscious shoppers, LeClaire encourages her team to hire someone a little less … glamorous. Someone like Renee.
And so unfolds a wish-fulfillment story without the usual need for magic. In fact, what sets “I Feel Pretty” apart is the inspired premise that Renee’s transformation takes place entirely in her head, while those around her are left befuddled by her sudden change of attitude — a concept that prompts the question of why our society encourages women to second-guess their self-image in the first place. However progressive that may sound, it’s worth reiterating that the movie falsely assumes that Schumer is somehow less desirable than any of the stick-figure stunners it surrounds her with, repeatedly milking the joke that her newfound confidence is out of sync with her body type.
Ironically, when Schumer was starting out as a stand-up comic, agents and bookers dismissed her as a foulmouthed blond bombshell, claiming that her following had more to do with her looks than her talent (boy, did she prove them wrong, actively subverting such sexist stereotypes in her Emmy-winning “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch series). According to “I Feel Pretty,” the actress — who reportedly had to bow out of a live-action “Barbie” movie over scheduling conflicts — now seems to be faced with the opposite situation, wrestling with the misconception that she’s not skinny enough to be a sex symbol (though “Trainwreck” should have put the lie to that idea).
Granted, Schumer doesn’t look like your typical Victoria’s Secret model, but she does have a personality, whereas most of her cast mates can barely make an eye-roll look convincing. Plus, as a bargain shopper who spends hours struggling before the mirror every morning, Renee knows what it’ll take to get the line off the ground — offering a welcome opportunity for the film to articulate what’s wrong with the fashion industry today.
Much like Anne Hathaway’s down-to-earth character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Schumer wrestles with the toxic allure of the high-end world in which she works, alienating her friends and jeopardizing her new romance with nice guy Scovel when a fling with Avery’s playboy brother (Tom Hopper) presents itself. Amusingly enough, once Renee starts to believe in herself, men find her irresistible — a notion the movie also explores in reverse, implying that the women she considers “undeniably beautiful” might have self-esteem issues of their own. (Then again, who doesn’t?)
Responding to the backlash by those who feel Schumer is pretty enough as she is, the actress has rather disingenuously suggested that the only change Renee experiences is in the way she views herself, which doesn’t square with how her character behaves, especially when the “spell” is broken and she becomes convinced no one will recognize her.
As in “Trainwreck” (which Schumer wrote), the movie runs out of steam in its final third, attempting to perfect — but instead merely belaboring — the genre’s message-delivery denouement. After all, if neither audiences nor her peers ever perceived a change in Renee’s appearance, then why does she think her friends will reject her after the “magic” wears off? “I Feel Pretty” turns incredibly clunky toward the end, as Renee grapples with the idea that everything she accomplished, she did in the body she was born with — whereas that’s one of the many reasons audiences love Schumer in the first place.