If the romantic comedy is an endangered species, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein are its conservationists.
As screenwriters, they’ve carved out a small and very satisfying niche turning out surprisingly grown-up romps like “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “How to Be Single.” Their movies juggle multiple plotlines but also dare to do something rare – not only question some of our cultural assumptions about romance, but end with a female character alone and happy.
“I Feel Pretty,” their new film and their first as directors, is a little more conventional than those earlier pictures; it has one main character, and a goofy idea sort of inspired by “Big.” (A bit of theft the team cheekily acknowledges by having its heroine first watch the Tom Hanks comedy on TV.) But what their new story lacks in ambition it makes up for with humor (and good humor, which is often different.)
It stars Amy Schumer as Renee, the sort of young woman who wears a necklace spelling out her name, and spends her time pouring over Cosmopolitan articles and YouTube beauty tutorials. She’s funny and bright, but she doesn’t see that. All she sees is that she doesn’t look like a model – and she’s beginning to realize all the expensive makeup and SoulCycle classes in the world aren’t going to help.
And to the film’s credit – and especially Schumer’s – this isn’t the sort of old-fashioned Hollywood picture that puts eyeglasses on Michelle Pfeiffer and pretends she’s plain, or suggests Janeane Garofalo is undatable because she’s short. We see the chubby Renee as she really is – in brassieres that don’t quite fit, and Spanx pushed brutally beyond their limits. And we see what that does to her self-esteem.
Then she falls and hits her head.
And when Renee wakes up, she wakes up with a delusion – that she’s finally the Barbie doll she always wanted to be, slim but curvy, sexy but approachable. And the magic is, because Renee thinks she’s pinup-perfect gorgeous, she’s suddenly full of confidence. And the joke is, because she’s suddenly full of confidence, everyone treats her as if she were pinup-perfect gorgeous.
You are what you think you are.
This is, actually, a big, serious message for a little romantic comedy. Sadly, as soon as the trailers showed up a few months ago, they were met with self-righteous fury from the Twitterati.
Some online cranks argued that Schumer was far too pretty to play an “ugly duckling” (something Schumer might laugh at, considering at least one male critic had famously said she wasn’t pretty enough to be in her first movie, “Trainwreck”). Others insisted “I Feel Pretty” only endorsed the hurtful cliché that you had to be attractive to be happy – the kind of body-shaming thinking the film actually tries to refute.
The only thing scarcer these days than good romantic comedies, it seems, are people who can understand irony.
Kohn and Silverstein, though, have a good idea of what makes a movie work, and although this is very much Schumer’s picture – and she has several scenes which show what a surprisingly touching actress she can be — it has lots of other delights, too.
Chief among them is Michelle Williams, doing a sort of wicked spin on Ivanka Trump, playing the perfectly dressed, dazzlingly blonde heiress to a big business empire (cosmetics, in this case) but with a tiny, Betty Boop voice that keeps anyone from taking her seriously. It’s the sort of comic performance we almost never get to see Williams do, but it’s weighted by its own gravity, too – even glamorous millionaires can have insecurities.
And the film is also generous with its other performers. Rory Scovel has a nice part as Renee’s love interest, a fellow she confidently, even aggressively pursues – which is fine with him, as he has his own issues with society’s domineering, macho-man stereotypes (a theme which certainly could have been developed further). And, as there should be in a movie about the beauty industry, there are a few nods to its own icons, including guest appearances by Naomi Campbell and the still-looking-great Lauren Hutton.
“I Feel Pretty” sometimes stoops a little too low in search of an easy laugh, making Renee not just flabby but slobby (she chews with her mouth open, picks her nose, falls asleep with food on her face – like Melissa McCarthy, Schumer is often in an eager rush to ridicule herself before you can). And its mostly Massachusetts locations look nothing like New York (particularly Renee’s too-cute Chinatown apartment).
But like Kohn and Silverstein’s last two movies, it has several recognizable human beings on screen. It doesn’t depend on truly gross-out humor, or over-the-top slapstick, or a climax with a ridiculous car chase. It doesn’t treat the audience – or its characters – like idiots. And for that, “I Feel Pretty” makes me feel lucky.