The four people who read this blog might be wondering what happened this month. I’ll tell you:
- My baby learned to flip onto her stomach but not her back, so she started waking up in the middle of sleep, lifting herself into push up position, and not knowing what to do next.
- Everyone in my household got sick, except me. I just got tired.
- I discovered the TV show Babylon Berlin, which is not written or directed by women but does a wonderful female lead, Charlotte, who is easily one of my favorite female characters of all time.
Okay, so back to movies. Last night I saw I Feel Pretty, starring Amy Schumer, and written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein. It’s a fairy tale about a woman, Renee, who thinks she is unattractive and wishes to be beautiful. She gets her wish, sort of, when she falls off her bike in spin class and hits her head really hard. When she comes to, she looks in the mirror and doesn’t recognize the incredibly attractive woman reflected back. Nothing whatsoever had changed about her appearance, but her perception has changed dramatically, and now she loves the way she looks and struts about with extreme confidence. As a result, her life changes: she starts dating a great guy and her career takes off. The problem is, she thinks the change has come about because of her magically improved physical appearance; she doesn’t realize it’s all in her head.
As I describe this plot, it sounds pretty didactic, and it was. It also ended on a boring note that seemed to promote affordable make-up as a way for women to deal with impossible beauty standards. Considering its quasi-Buddhist premise, it could have gone a lot further with Renee’s change in perception. She’s a character who, for so much of her life, was preoccupied with becoming conventionally attractive. Now that she’s gotten her wish and that preoccupation is gone, who is she? No one in particular, in this movie. Which is a major flaw. The problem is that Schumer the comedian is so much smarter, goofier, and wittier than Renee. Sometimes glimmers of Schumer appear in her interactions with the other actors and you want more of that woman.
I Feel Pretty should have leaned more into its fairy tale aspects. It could have been a lot more weird and surreal, and that weirdness would have illuminated the absurdity of the beauty industry and the magical powers that women give to a tube of lipstick or a mascara wand. Alternatively, it could have been more realistic, and there could have been more about the make-up industry, which has undergone massive growth in the past decade, thanks to smartphones and selfies. People now shop for products that will photograph well and spend a lot timing making themselves up for social media interactions, not IRL socializing. There is a fascinating story to be told about how women’s relationship to their appearance has changed with the rise of mobile phone use, but I Feel Pretty only has a couple of scenes that even acknowledge the undercurrent of social media.
Amy Schumer was also too old for this part. Her concerns about her appearance, while evergreen across all ages, struck me as particular to a woman in her late teens and early twenties, not a woman in her thirties. I recognized some of the confusion of my teenage years in Renee: this feeling of, what do I look like and who should I be and how much am I supposed to/want to buy into conventional beauty standards/femininity? A lot of the plot lines in this movie–especially the ones pertaining to Renee’s career–would have made more sense if she were just out of college and still very naive.
There was a nod to Big in the movie, and at one point I thought to myself: what if this movie is really about a 12-year-old girl trapped inside a grown woman’s body? Renee almost says as much, at the end of the movie, when she exhorts a crowd of fashion people to remember the joy of being a little girl who dances with abandon and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. That’s a nice idea but hard to put into practice when you’re living in a world that thinks really awful things about women. There is a much better movie hidden in this one, where Renee’s shift in perception is about her sudden inability to absorb misogyny.
Normally, this is not a movie I would have picked to see, but it’s been the subject of so much pre-emptive backlash that I wanted to give it a chance. Despite my complaints, I laughed a lot, and so did the other people in the theater. There are some really funny scenes, especially the ones between Renee and her love interest, a low-key, easygoing guy who goes out with Renee at her insistence, and then falls for her. Michelle Williams is also well-cast as a fashion CEO with a babyish, high-pitched voice. Finally, there were a couple of deadpan gazes at luxury culture that really made laugh, even as they sometimes felt like they were part of another movie.
I’m still rooting for Amy Schumer, and if you like her, definitely see this movie, because she’s clearly having a good time and is charming throughout. I Feel Pretty doesn’t deserve the backlash it had received–and at the same time, women deserve something a lot better.