When Amy Schumer made her debut as a big-screen lead with 2015’s Trainwreck, she brought a strong personal perspective to the movie, as both the writer and star, drawing material from her own life to tell a funny and relatable (if a bit overlong and overstuffed with subplots) story about an aimless woman getting her life together. Since becoming a superstar, Schumer has struggled to bring that same personal touch to subsequent movies in which she’s not the main creative force. After stumbling with the strained action-comedy Snatched last year, Schumer returns to the rom-com format with I Feel Pretty, but once again she seems constrained and misguided.
Veteran rom-com screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (He’s Just Not That Into You, How to Be Single, Never Been Kissed) make their directorial debut with a story straight out of a 1980s high-concept comedy: Renee Bennett (Schumer) is a frustrated single woman in a dead-end job working for the online portal of beauty company Lily LeClaire. What she really wants is to work in LeClaire’s glamorous Manhattan headquarters and to fit in with the supermodel-level employees there, but instead she toils away in a basement and fruitlessly searches for online dates along with her similarly frumpy (but only, of course, in a Hollywood way) friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps, both deserving better).
But when she suffers a head injury during a SoulCycle class, Renee wakes up believing she’s switched bodies, just like in ’80s comedies Vice Versa or Like Father Like Son or Big (which Renee watches in an earlier scene, in case the connection wasn’t clear enough). The twist is that Renee is actually the exact same person, and only she perceives herself as having changed. Kohn and Silverstein get a lot of mileage out of the joke that Renee thinks no one can recognize her in her new form, but that wears thin pretty quickly.
Although the movie’s ultimate message is meant to be empowering, as Renee learns that confidence, not superficial beauty, was what was missing from her life, the bulk of the humor comes at her expense. Isn’t it hilarious that this woman who doesn’t perfectly fit conventional beauty standards is entering a bikini contest or considering a modeling career? How could that possibly be? Even Renee’s main romance with a friendly hipster (Rory Scovel) whom she meets at the dry cleaners is played for laughs, when she assumes he’s desperate to get her number and go on a date with her.
There are occasional moments when Schumer’s appealingly brash persona shines through, and she has a nice relaxed chemistry with Scovel. Michelle Williams is also amusing in her first comedic role in 10-plus years, as Avery LeClaire, the clueless heiress who’s been tasked with running her grandmother’s company. Speaking in an airy, high-pitched baby-doll voice, Williams seems to have been imported from a much weirder, more interesting movie, although Avery turns out to be sweet and harmless, in a movie that lacks any sort of antagonist.
Renee is her own worst enemy, really, but the movie barely acknowledges that, even when she learns the requisite lesson about beauty only being on the inside. Her highest ambition is to be a receptionist, and her big movie-ending speech comes in service of launching LeClaire’s new beauty line. It’s possible to make a frothy throwback comedy like this that’s still endearing, clever and warm-hearted (check out 13 Going on 30 for a slightly more recent example of how to make this concept work), but I Feel Pretty is caught between its modern feminist intentions and its retro stereotypical plot construction, serving neither one well.