In the under-rated anthology comedy Movie 43, Hugh Jackman plays a hunky bachelor with one, shall we say, slightly unusual thing about him: a pair of huge testicles that dangle from his chin. His shell shocked date, Kate Winslet, cannot take her eyes off them; nor can she understand why nobody else in a busy restaurant appears to notice anything wrong with him. The humour arises from a Twilight Zone-esque predicament: everybody around her sees a beautiful man, while Winslet only sees hideousness.
I Feel Pretty, a preachy new comedy starring Amy Schumer, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, reverses the situation and invites the audience into the mystery. The blonde comedian is clearly an attractive actor, yet everybody in this movie treats her character Renee as if she was ugly. According to the script, Renee is an unattractive person who, after suffering a blow to the head, comes to believe she is supermodel material, and subsequently starts realising her dreams – purely by behaving with new-found confidence.
I wonder how becoming a celebrity affects one’s opinion of humanity.
The problem is that Schumer, who is attractive, plays a character who isn’t attractive, who starts to think she is attractive, which she was anyway. Got it? The trailer made all this clear. It went down like a lead balloon when it premiered in February, generating controversy. You could preface “controversy” with “social media”, and “social media” with “another,” and “another” with “yet.” Nevertheless, the backlash raised a valid point (unlike the recent hullabaloo around the release of the family film Peter Rabbit) even if the discourse was shrill and speculative.
We’ll get back to that in a moment. First, contemplate the situation from Schumer’s perspective. Outraged parties responded that she was many kinds of “too” for this role. Too blonde, too thin, too pretty, even too “abled.” Schumer does not belong to the extreme, haute couture vision of supermodel style beauty, and has previously spoken out about receiving abuse – including comments that she is too fat and not pretty enough. Now, with her new movie, she’s too fat and too pretty? I wonder how becoming a celebrity affects one’s opinion of humanity.
Sadly, however, she really is completely miscast in I Feel Pretty. And through no fault of her own – other than signing on to such a numb-skulled project – totally derails the film. Imagine a less conventionally attractive performer in this role, and you can see how the comedy might have played out, especially in the more rambunctious moments – such as a wet t-shirt competition the newly invigorated Renee spontaneously decides to compete in.
For the jokes to work, distance was necessary between the character’s real and imagined bodies. Having somebody who is attractive, playing somebody who believes she is very very attractive, is like hiring a middle-aged actor to play an elderly character. They are different but not that different. A child who thinks they are elderly, however, or an adult who thinks they are child (as in the 1988 Tom Hanks comedy Big) comes with an obvious, striking contrast, and more scope to make the jokes crackle.
Viewers will sense I Feel Pretty’s buttery didacticism well before it gets spread across the final act.
Kohn and Silverstein try and get around this by placing Renee in a range of situations where she is surrounded by supermodel types, including what appears to be a mega-elitist gym. She is also surrounded by snobby employees working for the fancy LeClair fashion empire, where Renee lands a job as the receptionist. Michelle Williams plays an air-headed boss, who speaks in slow, Diazepam-infused cadence. Rory Scovel plays a love interest Renee forces herself upon at a dry cleaners.
There is genuine melancholia in scenes when the protagonist is not affected by the ‘spell’ that changes her. Schumer’s character and performance taps into a widely relatable feeling, that one is trapped inside themselves. These scenes reminded me of a truism relayed in the fabulous 2009 film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: “You can’t run away from your own feet.” Viewers will sense I Feel Pretty’s buttery didacticism well before it gets spread across the final act, when Renee inevitably realises the power of a positive attitude.
By casting a clearly attractive actor in the lead role, when all the writing indicates that character should have gone to somebody else, the directors renege on their own core moral. Looks do matter, they tell us, or they wouldn’t have chosen a person wholooks this good on a poster. The fact that the protagonist works for a cosmetics company only adds to the film’s skin-deep, counter-intuitive superficiality. Perhaps its most valuable contribution to society will be as a case study in a thesis about changing perceptions of beauty in Hollywood.
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