“I Feel Pretty” ended up being a last minute choice at the cinema this week. There was no knee-jerk antipathy towards the film, but the three-minute trailer for the new Amy Schumer comedy seemed to map exactly what the movie was and where it would go. I didn’t feel as if I needed to see it to glean its point. I was right. This, of course, is no intrinsic slight to film. Originality as essential for successful art is a slippery slope, but “I Feel Pretty” fills a particular niche of comedic films that can’t seem to go beyond their premise. It’s one of a long line of comedies that would have been better served being a five-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live. After seeing the film, I wondered if Schumer signed on to the project with a full script or based on the pitch of the premise. Like any film that depends so heavily on its premise, “I Feel Pretty” does not hold up too much under scrutiny. And, I’m not even sure it’s meant to. The self-deprecating comedy we receive is somewhere between adequate and passable, there are even some delightful things within it, but it’s strange how airless a film with such a strong dedicating message seems.
“I Feel Pretty,” written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, has been advertised as an Amy Schumer film, although the comedienne is not part of the creative team and merely the star of it. It centres on a Schumer-esque title character who longs to work at the main office of the cosmetic giant LeClaire, except she has body-image issues and low self-confidence. An accident in a spinning class takes away the self-esteem issues, and the rest is comedic gold. Or at least, so the trailer for the film promises. In reality, the situation is more complex and not always for the better.
“I Feel Pretty” is a film marked by its ironies. They emanate from its clever title, lifted from the Bernstein/Sondheim “West Side Story” song. Prettiness, of course, is something you tend to see, rather than feel. In the case of the original song, it’s a character’s declaration of happiness at being seen, and at being loved. In the case of the Kohn/Silverstein movie, it’s a sly suggestion that perhaps Renee, our protagonist, is not actually pretty, but just feels pretty. The film has fun with this dynamic, but it’s an uncomfortable one that the writers are never able to properly navigate. The fact that this 30-year old woman’s biggest dream is to be a receptionist for a cosmetic company is so bizarre and self-immolating and the narrative’s attempt to make sense of it ends up bringing inadvertent humour. Schumer, although not petite, is someone who could only be considered “fat” in the world of the movies. The film’s central thrust of women coming to appreciate their body is undermined by its careless attitude towards beauty and body-image. It’s the type of movie conceit where attractive celebrities are cast as plain, and regular-sized actors are cast as fat or overweight. As an interrogation of societal body-issues, “I Feel Pretty” offers up the amusing irony of a world where Amy Schumer is fat, which is made all the more ridiculous when one of her friends in the film (who seems less hung up about her size) is a plus-sized actress. But, like with movie conceits, we take them as they come. Like I said, the movie isn’t meant to go under the microscope. It ends on a long monologue about loving yourself in front of a big audience that you see coming a mile-away, its heart is in the right place, its story and ethics, less so.
I left “I Feel Pretty” thinking about my favourite part of the film which existed on the edges. With Schumer firmly at the film’s centre, it is perhaps unsurprising that the most effective bite of the movie have nothing to do with her. The film is slavish to genericity to be truly revolutionary and convincing as a socially-conscious work, and that same push for the generic makes it more divertingly amusing than truly funny. But on the edges of the central story, the film benefits from a great comedic performance from the unlikeliest of persons – four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams.
Williams delivers in one of my favourite comedic performances of the last three years in a largely-vocal turn that adds depth, pathos and hilarity to a character that often feels like an afterthought in the narrative, but emerges as essential to the story whenever she appears on screen. It’s hard to explain the way Williams utilises vocal tics to mine humour in a character that’s, honestly, inexplicable. For example: one of the best comedic gags of the film turns on her pronunciation of the word “Kohl’s” and her enunciation of the word “diffusion”. It’s definitely a “you have to see it to get it” kind of joke, but it’s the one part of “I Feel Pretty” that kept me consistently entertained, and the audience who were guffawing around seemed to agree. With her shrewd work here, Williams has landed a one-two-three punch (her roles in “Manchester By the Sea,” “All the Money in the World” and now this) that have quickly made me re-evaluate my previous ambivalence about her.
It’s odd. I went into the film wondering if I would re-evaluate my ideas about Schumer, a comedienne who often comes under fire for not making the most of her appeal. And, to her credit, she does a fine job with a role that’s less complex than she deserves. Renee, as a character, is marked by contradictions, as is the film. But even as the film constantly clings to the most generic of beats, if you do take time out to see it, you’ll see Michelle Williams on the edges of the screen providing some of the most effective belly-laughs of 2018.
“I Feel Pretty” is currently playing at Caribbean Cinemas and Princess Movie Theatres