Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Review: I Feel Pretty (2018)

* * *

Director: Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein
Starring: Amy Schumer

Michelle Williams is a goddamn genius. If AMPAS gave her an Oscar for her performance in I Feel Pretty (it would never happen, that's beside the point) I would be like, "Yep, absolutely." Her character work and total investment in that character make her the absolute highlight of a film that I suspect will be judged and denounced by significantly more people than actually bother to see it. I Feel Pretty is already one of the most divisive films of the year, with critics either really liking it or really hating it and think pieces about it popping up all over entertainment sites. I'm not going to suggest that I Feel Pretty doesn't have problems, but I do think that it's a lot less problematic than all the words that have been devoted to analyzing it would suggest.

The premise of the film is that Schumer plays a woman with low self-esteem who, after watching Big, makes a wish to be beautiful and then sustains a head injury when she has an accident at a SoulCycle class. When she comes to and looks in the mirror, she loves what she sees. Nothing about her appearance has actually changed; the only change is in her assessment of herself. Where before she thought her thighs were took big, her stomach not flat enough, her arms not toned enough, now she looks in the mirror and sees nothing that she would consider a flaw. Now leading with her confidence, everything begins to fall into place for her: she secures a dream job working at the swanky head office of Lily LeClaire, a cosmetics company for which she was previously working in a satellite office in a basement in Chinatown, and quickly rises through the ranks as the CEO (Michelle Williams) comes to rely on her insights as they develop a diffusion line; she begins a relationship with a guy (Rory Scovel) who quickly becomes smitten with her; she gets invited to events that she would never have gotten to attend before; and, most importantly, she no longer spends her downtime obsessing over everything that she perceives to be wrong with her appearance.

The critical lambasting of I Feel Pretty primarily comes down to two things. The first is that it is premised on the idea that Amy Schumer is fat and ugly, the second is that the joke is that, despite being fat and ugly, Schumer's character thinks she's hot. Regarding the first criticism, Schumer is neither fat nor ugly, but by the exaggerated standards of Hollywood she's what would qualify as "average" and that is how the film itself sells her. It's not that the character is considered fat or ugly by the film, it's that in a world where the only images of women are the ones perpetuating an impossible and incredibly limited standard of beauty, any woman who doesn't live up to that standard (which is most) may feel insecure and invisible to the world around her (which is how Schumer's character feels). Regarding the second criticism, I think that this represents a complete misunderstanding of what the story is getting at. The film aims to get laughs out of people's reaction to the "change" in the character, but people aren't reacting to her the way that they are because she thinks she's attractive when she's not, they're reacting to her the way that they are (which is largely with confusion) because they aren't accustomed to seeing a woman have so much self-confidence. The film's target isn't the beauty myth so much as it is the myth of feminine modesty.

Even if it weren't for the fact that culture actively tears at women's self-esteem on a daily basis (and, as the film points out, does the same to men by pushing impossible to attain standards of masculinity), women are socialized from childhood to be modest. Not modest in terms of dress, necessarily, but modest in terms of their self-assessment. Boys grow up being told that they can (and should) conquer the world because they're the best, but girls grow up being told that being "full of yourself" is one of the worst things that you can be. You can be the best at something, but you're not supposed to acknowledge that you're the best at it, let alone announce that you are. It's the reason that many women can't accept a compliment without qualifying it by revealing some flaw, because simply accepting the compliment is to agree with the assessment, which itself has been made to feel taboo because it conflicts with all the messages girls grow up with that you're supposed to aspire to a certain standard but that anyone who believes that she has attained it is "stuck up." So when Schumer's character walks into the room brimming with confidence, unshakable in her belief that she's great in every way, the people around her don't know how to react because they don't know how to respond to a woman who is so secure in herself that she requires no outside validation. That's the joke. It's not that she's ugly and thinks she's beautiful, it's that she requires no opinion other than her own in order to feel good about herself.

This isn't to say that the film isn't flawed. I don't know why, for example, being self-confident has to mean becoming an asshole (because even a movie that tears away at the notion that women have to be modest in their self-assessment can't help itself from treating its protagonist like she's gotten too big for her britches), or why having self-confidence should mean that the character feels flattered when she thinks she's being cat-called (the problem with cat-calling is most certainly not that women feel unworthy of such attention), and in general the film could use more of Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillipps (playing Schumer's best friends) as well as Lauren Hutton (as the namesake of the cosmetics company that Schumer works for). It's also not great that the film's climactic message that women are good enough just as they are is delivered at the product launch for a cosmetics company, making the moment more of a triumph for capitalism than it is for women.

I Feel Pretty has definitely earned some of the criticism that has come its way, while some of the other criticism is, I think, reaching. I don't think the film is "fat shaming" Schumer or her character, as has been alleged, since as I've said I don't believe the joke is meant to be that there's a disparity between how she looks and how she thinks she looks, but rather that she's no longer susceptible to the demoralizing messages that women are met with every day. Nor do I agree with the argument that the film uses black women (namely the characters played by Sasheer Zamata and Naomi Campbell) as the villains, making them nastier to Schumer's character than anyone else. You could absolutely criticize the film for having so few people of color in it despite being set in New York, but the characters played by Zamata and Campbell aren't even really mean to Schumer's character. They're puzzled by her, but not nasty to her. There are characters who are overtly nasty to her, but they're white and the joke ends up being at their expense rather than at the expense of the protagonist, who herself goes on to adopt some of the same attitudes, alienating her friends in the process

All that being said, however, I think that I Feel Pretty is a solidly entertaining comedy. Schumer isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I think she delivers a good performance in the role, both in the sections where the character is down on herself and feels like there's no place for her in a world that only values things that she believes that she's not, and in the sections where she has seemingly boundless confidence in herself. Williams, as I've said, is brilliant as the cosmetics mogul and delivers a performance which, despite the role being small in terms of screen time, is in and of itself completely worth the price of admission. Despite what you may have heard, I Feel Pretty is worth taking a chance on.

No comments: