Dissecting 'I Feel Pretty' and Its Questionable Message of Empowerment

Eisner-nominated comic book writer Alex de Campi and THR contributor Simon Abrams take a look at Amy Schumer's latest comedy.

[This story contains spoilers for I Feel Pretty]

The following conversation about the Amy Schumer romantic-comedy vehicle I Feel Pretty is a veritable battle of like-minded persuasions waged between Eisner-nominated comics writer Alex de Campi (No MercyJudge Dredd) and The Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams. In the film, Schumer plays Renee Bennett, an insecure office drone who gains renewed self-confidence after she bruises her brain pan by falling off of an exercise bike at SoulCycle

This is the third monthly conversation in which the pair discusses films (check out the previous installment, a spoiler-filled look at Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, here).

Alex de Campi, Mean Girl: *Trailer Guy Voice* In a world where, for a whole month, a self-obsessed woman doesn't take a single selfie... (flash to black; loud metallic clanging noise)... in a city that Instagram forgot... (dizzying aerial drone shot of Boston, I mean Manhattan, flash to black, that clang again)... welcome to the cringe-making mess that is I Feel Pretty. (Up on Schumer's face, tight close-up as she blows a kiss to the camera. She has lipstick on her teeth.) 

Look, I have anxiety and depression, and not only did I not laugh once in this film, but the secondhand embarrassment I felt for every character at every moment of its glacial running time stressed me out so hard I wasn’t sure I could function the following day. Can we ... can we please stop taking me to chick flicks? I feel like they're bad for me. 

The most frustrating thing of all is that there is a good little film buried inside this weird SoulCycle infomercial, but the filmmakers chose high concept over character writing. The concept is that Schumer — playing Renee Bennett, A Fat Girl Who Is Constantly Picked on Because Fat — knocks herself on the head in an exercise class and wakes up thinking she's got a supermodel body and face. She thinks she’s no longer fat, so gains confidence. But LOL, she is actually still a fatty! A fatty who doesn’t ever take selfies to immortalize her new supermodel status. 

Hey, am I the only one that's tired of fat being a joke? Women over a size 6 in a feature film are either the villains or the sassy best friend. If they're the lead or not, the entire story has to be about The Fat. Why can't we, in the immortal words of Cardi B, let people fat in peace? The film spends two hours going LOL FAT but then attempts to tell us with a straight face that it’s “empowering” because look, every character has insecurities! Even the thin ones! And Renee doesn’t transform! No, I Feel Pretty is not empowering. It’s toxic. And worst of all, it’s not funny. 

I can't see a size 16 watching this film and going, "Oh, Amy Schumer really gets me, this film gets me." There's a scene very early on where a skinny store assistant in a high-street store snubs Amy's character, Renee, because Renee is looking at cut-off jean shorts, but HAHA LOL the store doesn't carry her size. I mean ... women know what stores stock their size. We're not as dumb as you make us on film. Renee The Real Person would have known — or checked discreetly as soon as she came in on the nearest rack — if the store stocked her size. Renee The Maker of Convenient Choices for Lazy Scriptwriters, though? She's clueless. Renee is not a real person, she does not make real person choices, she makes stupid comedy-film choices and it's not good enough anymore. 

If the bitchy shop assistant thing sounds like something that's been done before (Pretty Woman, f'rex), oh, boy. Sit down. Can I also tell you she meets a hot rich guy who falls for her because she's so adorkable and real (Fifty Shades)? And helps out a snobby fashionista to run her business better (The Devil Wears Prada)? But unfortunately, this takes her on an arc where she almost loses her Nice, Normal Guy (Rory Scovel) and definitely loses her Unglamorous Besties for a bit (Mean Girls) as she loses sight of What Really Matters. Every trope. E V E R Y.  

Simon Abrams, Shakes the Clown: The Fat was a major source of irritation for me, too, though I am a film journalist, and am therefore hardly the poster child for a healthy lifestyle. Still, I tried very hard to see the film that Schumer defended in her interviews. She claims that critics' pans say more about their unexamined prejudices and unrealistic expectations than they do about the film we saw. That self-serving dodge made me wince even more than the film did. 

Before we go any further, I want to point out an especially tedious quote in this revealing Vulture interview with Charles Bramesco and compare it to what's in the actual film. It's the bit where Schumer addresses I Feel Pretty's post-head trauma transformation scene. She claims: "[Renee] doesn’t say, 'I’m so thin!' She just says that she’s amazed by her jawline, and her boobs, and her ass. If anything, that sounds like a more voluptuous woman to me." This is mostly a misrepresentation. In the scene, Schumer (as Renee) makes a SoulCycle employee touch her stomach and feel her "rock-hard" abs. The employee even says that Renee's stomach feels "pretty full." Schumer's character also feels up her thighs, as if noticing how toned they are. The joke here isn't subtle: Renee is proud of her body despite the filmmakers signaling to the audience that she shouldn't be.

So Schumer's objection — we are just too easily offended by a film we already had our knives out for — is anti-intellectual horse shit. And while "gaslighting" is a loaded term that I hesitate to use, I do think it applies to the suggestion that we are only imagining a disparity between the filmmakers' projected reality and the observable behavior exhibited in the actual film. This particular line from Schumer made me sputter: "I heard the comment, 'Why does she have to think of herself as skinny?' a lot. But you never see how I see myself!'"

Why does the fact that we never see Renee's self-image matter given if we can otherwise see how the filmmakers look at their heroine? The slow-motion jiggle of Schumer's belly fat during Renee's frenetic bikini-contest performance. The stress and sentence structure of a pseudo-ameliorative line — from Grant LeClaire, Tom Hooper's hot, kind playboy who is also attracted to Renee's confidence — that tells Schumer's character that high-powered women who don't listen to many people want to listen to "someone like you" (emphasis on "you" since this is the sentence's last word). The unflattering make-up job that emphasizes the roundness of Schumer's face. The dopey boyfriend character, who is shocked at the way Renee leaps to her bedroom window without any clothes ... but only after she thinks she hears the ice-cream man. The ice cream man! What traits are being emphasized here if not overeating and ugliness? 

You could conceivably argue that the joke is on Renee's insecurities rather than her actual faults in the "We don't have your size, check online" department store scene. But you cannot tell me that about a film that constantly makes sport of this character for feeling like she is more gorgeous than she appears in the mirrors that her friends, lovers and co-workers — and therefore also the filmmakers — hold up to her.

Also, am I way off-base about Schumer's makeup job? It seemed so unkind that I wondered why they wanted Renee to look like Charles Laughton at a Cabaret — or even Alien Nation — makeup test.

I also want to talk about Hopper and Scovel's characters. I think it's very revealing that Hopper's rich guy is the kind one while Scovel's lowly, schmucky temp is the one projecting his anxieties on Renee. Again, this is gaslighting because the filmmakers ask us to agree with the rich guy who can magically transcend his privilege, but squirm with discomfort whenever Scovel's schlubbo in a T-shirt — she ate his hot dog! — struggles to see the inner beauty of Schumer's character.

De Campi: No, you’re right, the makeup is awful. Which is bizarre, considering the entire conceit of the film is that Renee works at a makeup company, knows everything about makeup and wants to work in their fancy head office. Like, I know Sephora Girl, and her makeup is like 400 percent more on point than that, no matter what her dress size is. The clothes, too. Renee works in a basement Chinatown office with a schlubby guy (Adrian Martinez), and she shows up in heels and a mini 24-7. Now, I am the most extra person in the universe, and I will put on heels and a dress to go downtown to my gym because girlfriend doesn’t go on public transport in her gym clothes.

But Renee’s skirt is so unflatteringly short (the kind that ends up bunched up over your hips when you sit down), and those heels look so painful. Sure, she would have tried those clothes for the first week when she thought Head Office might drop by. But then she’d be in, like, ankle boots or wedges and trendy black jeans so her bare ass spent as little time as possible touching that gross office chair fabric. This is so symptomatic of the film's lack of research. The cosmetic company head office scenes are just embarrassing, and made me yearn for The Devil Wears Prada. They made a Naomi Campbell cameo boring. HOW? HOW DO YOU MAKE NAOMI BORING? 

I Feel Pretty is overstuffed, to the point where you could have torn out half the subplots and secondary characters, as well as the whole head-injury high concept itself (why couldn’t she just be a confident fat gal trying to make it and facing fatphobia?) and ended up with a better film. It’s also underdirected, and  Schumer’s performance — for 90 percent of the film — is the equivalent of getting yelled at in a bar by a drunk bachelorette. The film wakes up, for me, approximately twice. First, when Renee and her nerdy boyfriend Ethan go on a date in the park, because Schumer stops being loud and cringe-making for a hot second and actually acts. And she’s sweet and fun and real, and they have a rapport, and I wanted so much more of that.

But no, five minutes later we’re shouting again. The second time is when we glimpse the twisted LeClaires, the rich family that runs the cosmetic company: Michelle Williams struggling heroically to play Avery, an underwritten role that made her character stupider than any corporate CEO could credibly be; Lauren Hutton as Lily, or Estee Lauder, basically; and Tom Hopper as Grant, the hot, black-sheep brother. Basically, the real actors came onscreen and did their jobs without needing recourse to direction and I was like, "Oh, I miss good actors. Come back, please." (But also, Renee? When the hot dude knocks on your door and says his family won’t let him charge expenses to his own hotel room and can he make a call? He’s phoning his dealer. Trust me, honey. Also, lock up the vodka.)

So, Simon, when you and I finally caught up about this film, we discussed a thing, and I repeat it here: I think this might be the first time I’ve ever said this, but I would have preferred Judd Apatow to direct this. 

Abrams: I think the Apatow connection is interesting for a couple of reasons. The chief one being, as we discussed in person already, the idea that Apatow's crew follows smutty jokes to their logical conclusion. Case in point: the ill-advised naked at the window routine. This joke cannot be done well because it is fundamentally a joke at the expense of the heroine. The idea is to show Renee through the eyes of Scovel's ostensibly harmless beardo and show how this moment — the one where he marvels at her ability to stand naked and imperfect before a crowd of by-standers — is the one where he realizes that he doesn't give a damn what she looks like. He likes her chutzpah. He likes her gumption. He likes her for her. 

But he doesn't. Beardo likes Renee's ability to like herself, but only after a magical-thinking-inducing blunt trauma incident lends her confidence. This is why I think you are bang-on about how the film's higher-than-God main concept is the most misbegotten thing about I Feel Pretty; you could easily make this comedy work without it. But if everything comes back to that inciting head-bonking incident — and it often does, because that's who these characters are — then you are clearly telling us who you are.

So, the naked-at-the-window routine. This punchline would have (and already has) worked in Apatow-produced comedies — including the Schumer-starringApatow-directed Trainwreck — for one reason. And it's not because Apatow's guys like to get naked, though that often earns a cheap laugh. No, this punchline generally works in Apatow-produced films because the setup is fundamentally different. I Feel Pretty's joke is on Renee: naked person has confidence despite being apparently unworthy of self-love. Compare that with the naked on the couch gag in the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The sight of Jason Segel's penis is funny because he's laughing at himself: Segel's character is an object of pity. He is vulnerable, sure, but the joke isn't that he feels pretty despite being ugly. The joke is that he cannot disguise how he feels, and doesn't really try to. 

I think many of I Feel Pretty's jokes don't land because the filmmakers try to have it all ways. So I'm not surprised that they hide Schumer's character in shadows for the naked at the window gag. Because the sight of a naked Amy Schumer at this moment would be cruel, and would say a lot about how the filmmakers feel about the character. But when every character in the film — from the fat, oafish, basement-dwelling co-worker to the smarmy rich playboy not-quite love interest — reveals contempt for your heroine? Then, yeah, you should expect backlash, and accusations of fat-shaming and insensitivity. Because if the makers of I Feel Pretty were honest with themselves, they'd know that you have to show Schumer naked to make the naked at the window joke work. And they pull that punch because part of them knows how cruel this scene really is.

Can we talk about Nice Guy Beardo for a moment though? I liked your defense of him and think that's worth contending with. Because he personifies the more good-natured, conflicted, almost-there better qualities of the film. And I think you like him a lot more than I do.

De Campi: When Scovel's character first showed up in the dry-cleaner scene, I didn’t like him at all. And, as usual with this film, I cringed through the entire scene. I warmed to Ethan later, though, mostly because Scovel’s performance is so understated enough — within the context of this film — that he gave Schumer space to be more low-key, too, and thus to me more appealing. But the writer-directors couldn’t decide what they wanted out of his character. Is he repulsed by her brashness and appearance, or is he attracted to her? There’s no real, definable arc, more just an opportunistic, skittering from gag to gag until, woop woop, he decides he loves her because Script Reasons. Oh, and then apparently the character is too stupid to realize his nickname "Wheat Thin” is a play on his name, Ethan, which clearly indicates he is a pod person who has never spent any childhood time on a playground, anywhere.

(Man, I wish this film had pod people in it for real. Come back, Donald Sutherland, there was never anything to forgive.)

Oh, and then, of course, the film shoehorns in the obvious windowing scene where Ethan confesses all his insecurities to Renee, just like Michelle Williams’ character talks about how her squeaky voice makes her feel insecure, and the crying hot model talks about her body issues, and yadda yadda. But none of it feels real, because we never see those insecurities holding any of these characters back. Not even Renee, except in the very beginning when she dithers briefly about sending in a résumé for a job she is clearly qualified for. (Honey, in times like these, repeat the mantra, "What would a mediocre white boy do?” until you too realize you can fake it until you make it. This has been a public service announcement from Team Whisky & Vendetta.)

Abrams: I can see flashes of realness in Scovel's character in the bar scene, the one where Renee thinks she's lost her trauma-induced confidence and therefore cannot bring herself to date Ethan. This type of scene is untenable because it inevitably loops back to the film's dumb high-concept premise: unworthy woman finds self-love through head trauma. After all, Renee runs from Ethan because she fears he will find her physically unattractive. Or physically different than how she saw herself physically ... thanks to a magical head trauma at SoulCycle.

I'm sure the filmmakers would have us believe that we are simply projecting our insecurities on Renee when we assume that the difference between Renee's pre- and post-bar scene self-image is not for the better. Because crying "fake news" absolves the character's creators of greater responsibility. But, I dunno, maybe Schumer — in that Vulture interview — is wrong for assuming that we, the viewers of a high-concept comedy, don't need to actually see what Renee thinks she looks like. Maybe this is just the naked-at-the-window routine's problem on a slightly larger scale, the kind of gag whose most ingrained flaws have been ignored since it's been tweaked and retouched so it doesn't appear that bad (if you're not looking too hard). Who can say, really? Apparently not us.

Actually, screw that: Just look at all the other ways that I Feel Pretty suggests that Renee is uglier in reality than she is in her post-traumatized head! How about the way that Renee, after she becomes resensitized, cryptically tells Ethan that he wouldn't recognize the old her? Or the way that she admires herself in the mirror during their sex scene, and he responds with a slack-jawed, Ralph Kramden-worthy homina homina? Or the way that when she, after binging on junk food and booze, shows up to her besties' apartment, and is turned away after one friend asks her — and I'm paraphrasing, mind — "Why would you think that we liked you for the way you looked?" 

This last line is everything I hate about I Feel Pretty and its creators' smirking tendency of leading viewers down a certain path only to try to convince us later on that hey, you filled in a lot of blanks, I didn't take you anywhere you weren't ready to go yourself! This is self-help as three-card monte.

Anyway, back to the bar scene. Scovel is great here because he doesn't understand what Renee is doing when she pretends to be a stranger that he just happens upon. Renee is convinced that she is unrecognizable to Ethan because she not only felt prettier before — she also looked a lot more beautiful in her head (and not just the inner beauty kind of beautiful). So Ethan goes up to her and assumes that they're doing a weirdly emotionally charged kind of role-playing. She pretends to be the cute, insecure girl he's never known her to be. And he is gifted with an opportunity to prove his love to her. And I'll be damned if Scovel doesn't do just that. He sells this scene and briefly made me want to buy whatever the hell this film is selling. 

But then Schumer's character hits rock bottom, and starts to binge on depressing, but comforting, food and drinks, and then begs her now-offended friends to take her back. And that's when her BFFs ask the dreaded, above-mentioned question that I cannot stand to repeat (mostly because I was only able to paraphrase the line; my notes are illegible as I have not mastered the art of writing in the dark). At this point, I Feel Pretty goes back to its typically wishy-washy style of preaching self-care while also actively chipping away at its heroine's self-image. Schumer's character even tells us why this movie doesn't work when she rants about why guys don't pay attention to girls' profiles beyond how they look in their profile pics: It's all about image! I Feel Pretty isn't any less shallow. But its creators do sometimes convincingly project their desire to be kinder. Just not often enough.