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Non-Review Review: I Feel Pretty

I Feel Pretty has a very bold premise for an aspirational comedy.

Renee is a young woman wrestling with her insecurities, who dreams of being more beautiful. Inspired by a late-night viewing of Big, she is inspired to transform that dream into a wish, and pleads with some external power to physically transform her. Following an awkward accident (and a brain injury) at her “Soul Cycle” class, Renee wakes up and does not recognise her own body. The only catch is that the transformation is strictly internal. Renee is delusional. Her physical appearance has not changed, but the way that she sees herself has.

Reflective anxiety.

That is an ambitious premise, but also a loaded one. There are any number of potential misfires and miscalculations that could sabotage that premise, the skillful execution of the movie relying upon a pitch-perfect management of tone, a key understanding what the movie is trying to say at any given moment, and the sense that all of the production team are working from the same template towards the same goal.

Unfortunately, I Feel Pretty lacks that sense of cohesion, resulting in a mismatched tonal disaster, a film never entirely sure whether it is laughing with its protagonist or at her.

A tough premise to stomach.

I Feel Pretty is very much in keeping with the modern comedy landscape, in a number of different ways. Most obviously, the basic premise of the movie is aspirational, clearly built around an important life lesson. Of course, this is nothing new; Renee is inspired to make her wish by a late-night showing of Big. However, Big was very consciously framed as a fairy tale for children, so its didactic message about valuing youth made sense in that context.

Modern comedies aimed at adults tend to adopt a very vocal theme of self-actualisation. It is no longer enough for a comedy to be structured around a series of fun things that happen to a likable protagonist, these films inevitably have to involve the lead characters learning a very important lesson about themselves and the world. This is true even of the strongest studio comedies of the past few years. Game Night is about a brother coming to terms with his insecurities around his older sibling, while Blockers is about learned to let children be children.

Pretty flawed.

There is a sense that most modern studio comedies are full of what might cynically by described as “teachable moments”, and are even built around them. There is a broader debate to be had about whether this ties into a larger infantalisation of popular culture, but it is clear that I Feel Pretty neatly fits this template of laughs-but-with-self-actualisation. The basic theme of I Feel Pretty is obvious from the premise. Beauty is only skin-deep, it is what is on the inside that counts. The important thing is that people see themselves as beautiful and as deserving of love.

This is a cheesy and corny central premise for a broad comedy, and there is a sense that I Feel Pretty understands this tension. The presence of Amy Schumer might also be a factor. I Feel Pretty was not guided or shepherded by Schumer in the same way as The Amy Schumer Show or Trainwreck, but it cannot quite escape her influence. Schumer is a wry and subversive comic, who delights in playing with expectations and approaching material from an oblique and brutal angle.

Renew Renee.

On a scene-by-scene basis, I Feel Pretty seems to line up quite neatly with Schumer’s approach to comedy. There are a number of charming sequences within I Feel Pretty that feel well-observed and pointed, aware of the conventions of aspirational comedies like this and willing to play with them. These play into the idea that the plot of the movie is effectively a delusion powered by Renee’s understanding of familiar narrative tropes, with I Feel Pretty making a point to undercut the familiar rhythms of these scenes on a joke-by-joke basis.

This leads to a number of small laughs, such as a clever juxtaposition of what is happening within Renee’s head as compared to what is happening in the real world. At one point, Renee is dancing through her life-affirming montage. Suddenly, the camera to switches to another angle and for the pop song to stop, revealing how these sequences must look to casual observers within the world of the film. At the climax of the film, Renee inevitably delivers a personal monologue for a room full of strangers. Her boss responds by suggesting that she seek professional psychological help.

A familiar dance.

However, I Feel Pretty is too deeply wedded to the conventions and structures of these kinds of films to truly subvert or deconstruct them. The plot of I Feel Pretty is incredibly predictable, feeling more like a checklist of sequences for the cast to improvise around than a set script. Inevitably, Renee grows disconnected from the people who matter to her during the second act. Inevitably, there is a third act complication that raises the stakes, but never in a manner that would preclude a happy ending.

None of these tropes are executed with any real skill. Indeed, some of the movie’s big ideas are contradictory and hard to reconcile with one another. I Feel Pretty spends a lot of time on the idea that pretty people overlook and ignore those less physically attractive, treating them like dirt and barely acknowledging their shared humanity. Renee experiences this first hand at several points in the film, and later perpetuates it when she believes herself to be more physically attractive than her friends.

A beautiful set-up.

At the same time, I Feel Pretty also aspires towards a generic “feel good” message, and so awkwardly shoehorns in the idea that sometimes attractive people have their own insecurities and issues that less physically attractive people would think to consider. This is suggested with the attractive Grant, played by Tom Hopper, who reflects how hard it is to open himself up to love from somebody attracted to his bank balance or his rugged good lucks. Similarly, Emily Ratajkowski plays an attractive woman who reveals herself to be desperately insecure.

A better movie would be able to reconcile these competing ideas, the tension that society generates between people of varying degrees of physical attractiveness. Indeed, I Feel Pretty feels so earnest and sincere at points that it is surprising that the movie never starts proposing an economy of beauty. However, I Feel Pretty cannot keep its central ideas straight, even concerning individual characters. Emily Ratajkowski’s attractive and insecure woman is still the source of jokes about attractive men approaching her, or lavish affluent international adventures.

Prettier Ethan Ever…

There is a very clear push-and-pull within I Feel Pretty between its conventional elements and its more self-aware flourishes. For example, I Feel Pretty understands that the premise of the film is a potential minefield that might be read as perpetuating and reinforcing conventional standards of physical attractiveness. As such, I Feel Pretty makes a point to avoid explicitly showing the audience Renee’s idealised form, leaving itself open to interpretation. At the same time, adjectives like “toned” and “rock-hard” are used, suggesting a very conventional idea of attractiveness.

This back-and-forth within I Feel Pretty undercuts the movie, suggesting a film caught between two extremes. On the one hand, the film seeks to get a lot of mileage out of the idea that Renee is behaving in a manner that society would expect of somebody more conventionally attractive, and there is a hilarity in the idea that this woman would presume to think of herself as attractive when the film insists that she so obviously isn’t. At the same time, the film seeks to invest completely in Renee’s self-empowerment.

Pitched very carefully.

The result is a toxic cocktail, which seems much more mean-spirited than either approach would on their own terms. The film’s jokes about Renee’s presumptions that she is attractive seem particularly vindictive when contrasted with the recurring suggestion that Renee’s true self is all that matters. I Feel Pretty is a movie that encourages self-confidence, while at the same time insisting on placing limits upon that; too much self-confidence becomes absurd in some cases and arrogant in others.

I Feel Pretty even struggles with a relatively charming cast. Schumer as engaging and witty, particularly in sequences that allow her to riff on a basic set-up for a minute or so. However, these same sequences do not fit within the rigid framework of a conventional aspirational comedy. The movie introduces Emily Ratajkowski quite early on, and then forgets that she exists until the end. Rory Scovel is suitably charming as a love interest, particularly in a charming dinner sequence where the two men silently vie for attention, but the movie brushes him aside for extended periods.

Model employee.

However, no member of the cast is as sorely wasted as Michelle Williams, who is playing the role of the member of the ensemble who is presented as the living embodiment of “quirky.” It is the sort of role that, in a stronger film, would be considered a breakout. This is particularly true given Williams’ established reputation as one of the best dramatic actors of her generation. However, the character never coalesces into anything more than a funny voice, and never seems more interesting than when introduced skipping across the background of a scene.

I Feel Pretty is an ugly mess of a film.

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