The main character in the new comedy “I Feel Pretty” isn’t the one onscreen whom its star, Amy Schumer, works hard to invest with the energy and inspiration that are missing from the script. Rather, it’s a virtual woman imagined by the writers and directors, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who’s somewhere in the audience, lapping up the lessons that the movie so confidently dispenses on the very subject of confidence itself.
Schumer plays Renee Bennett, who lives in New York, alone (somewhere in Chelsea), and works for a glamorous luxury-cosmetics company—but you’d never know it from the setting of her digital back-office duties, which she fulfills from a grim and grimy Chinatown basement where her one colleague is the grumpy and uncommunicative Mason (Adrian Martinez, a scintillating comedian who’s wasted in a trivial role). Her ambition is to be transferred to the company’s gleaming headquarters in a glass tower across from Bryant Park; her desire is to have a romantic relationship with a man, and it’s a desire that she shares with her two best friends, Viv (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps).
Renee, however, is held back by low self-esteem, in particular regarding her assessment of her appearance. She compares herself to stereotypically model-y women and finds her body and her face wanting; she isn’t helped by the stereotyping imposed by the fashion industry (as in a scene, set in a boutique, involving a sales clerk’s concern-trolling about Renee’s likely dress size). Taking matters into hand, she heads to SoulCycle for spin classes, where she suffers her first humiliation when the shoe-rental counter doesn’t offer her double-wide size. It’s a series of misadventures—the first, a seat collapse that results in a vaginal injury; the second, another fall, in which she bumps her head, blacks out, and awakens in the dressing room, with the newfound belief that she is slender, and confidence that she is beautiful.
The bump-induced change of mind leads Renee to change her behavior, drastically: she loses her inhibitions and becomes suddenly brash, assertive, even brazenly aggressive in pursuit of her goals. In one of the movie’s few memorable moments, she’s interviewed by an executive played by Naomi Campbell and by another played by Michelle Williams—the scion of the firm started by her grandmother (Lauren Hutton)—and she nails the interview with a virtual aria on the role of a receptionist. (She promises to give visitors to the office the sense that “this is the only place to be.”) What’s more, her new frankness quickly pays off: when the company is striving to renew its image and its finances with a bargain line to be sold at Target, Renee opens up to her bosses about how working women such as herself use cosmetics and what they want from an inexpensive product—and they recruit her to help them in their pitch to Target and reward her with a fancy new title.
Meanwhile, in her romantic life, Renee becomes a brazen flirt, targeting a quiet young man named Ethan (Rory Scovel) while waiting on line at the local dry-cleaning shop and virtually wresting a date from him. Renee, who would previously seem to shrink into her shell when she walked into a room, now boldly and loudly shines; she’s now the instant life of the party. In a bikini contest in a boardwalk dive bar, she plunges into the fray alongside a half-dozen stereotypically skinny and sculpted women and, without even as much as a bikini (she just unzips her shorts and rolls up her T-shirt), she goes into a wild dance of comedic frenzy that should have been an anthology piece to stand alongside the treadmill scene in Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck.” But Kohn and Silverstein, lacking Apatow’s incisive and insistent sense of visual comedic parsing, ruin the scene with generic and choppy shots and editing, reducing Schumer’s gleefully exuberant performance to a plot point.
“I Feel Pretty” is the second movie comedy within the last year in which Schumer’s inventive artistry is misused. (“Snatched,” in which she co-starred with Goldie Hawn, was released last May.) Schumer didn’t write either script, as she did with Apatow’s film. Their collaboration on “Trainwreck” was golden: Schumer infused that movie with the same sharp and forthright observations, regarding the societal prejudices and psychological conflicts confronting women, that make her first-person comedy as illuminating as it is funny. It’s easy to see how the stereotypical view of beauty that’s satirized in “I Feel Pretty,” which Renee faces and then overrides, could have meshed with the persona, and the themes, that Schumer has developed on her own, but Kohn and Silverstein aren’t sufficiently lucid about the implications of the comedic premise. Schumer should simply be writing her own movies—and working with directors whose artistry matches her own.
Schumer isn’t the only noteworthy actor whose presence is squandered. Hutton and Campbell, in all-too-brief appearances, speak with experience and wit but are offered little to say or do; Williams has a welcome comedic role, but it’s a silly one-note gag involving her having a squeaky voice, and Scovel delivers his lines with an appealingly diffident spin, but the lines themselves are few and plain.
“I Feel Pretty” ’s methodical exposition and rickety resolution draw the film out to a lugubrious hundred and ten minutes. The plot reaches its point of crisis when Renee, who now has a boyfriend and a fun job, begins to act like a jerk to Viv and Jane, contrasting her own achievements with their own disheartening situations. She veers from confident to entitled in a flash, and her sense of ego (and perhaps of opportunity) is further fed on the high-powered Boston trip, aboard a private jet, where she’s the target of seduction by the company’s other scion, Grant (Tom Hopper), to whom she yields (with an asterisk—the movie chickens out on her sexual freedom, as if in order to make sure that she remains sympathetic in the realm of fidelity; like Jimmy Carter, she only commits adultery in her heart).
Renee’s newfound sense of self-love is kept, by Kohn and Silverstein, within bland and narrow limits, because the character is written not with any sense of interest or inquiry but to please and to flatter the virtual character, in the audience, who is meant to find Renee’s quest, success, and missteps edifying. Renee has no characteristics besides the few traits that the plot demands; she has no family, no religion, no cultural life, no interests, no impulses, no tastes, no opinions, no past, no identity. She’s merely a vessel for a life lesson that dispenses its caution with a belated and asterisk-like finger-wag—there’s no danger that the newly uninhibited Renee will let fly with an ugly, incautious, controversial, or disturbing remark from her unfiltered inner depths because, as written, she doesn’t have any. Ethan delivers the romantic one-liner that sells the movie’s message, when he expresses to Renee his breathless admiration: “You’re so yourself.” The only problem is that the movie gives her no self to be. Kohn and Silverstein aren’t as interested in Renee as they are in their fantasy viewer, who is as blanded-out and uncharacterized as Renee is, and who’s in need of a boost and a pat on the head from the didactic and knowing writer-directors. “I Feel Pretty” is a work of painful, unaware condescension masquerading as encouragement.