Amy Schumer has been a lightning rod for controversy from the start of her comedy career, sparking love-her-or-hate-her attention due to a combination of her often raw candor about her sex life and accusations that she has stolen some key jokes in her repertoire from other comics. Yet she has also proven herself to be an incredibly ambitious and eclectic talent, having scored Emmy nominations for writing, acting and directing and a win for her 2013-16 Comedy Central series, “Inside Amy Schumer.”
She had a critically acclaimed smash-hit film debut in 2015 with “Trainwreck” before fizzing out last year teaming as mother and daughter with Goldie Hawn in the lame comedy “Snatched.” She came back in a big way last weekend with the terrific new dramedy “I Feel Pretty,” in which she takes on the rampant social phenomenon of fat-shaming as a lonely single woman who gets everything and everybody she wants after conking her head and suddenly believing she’s as hot as a supermodel.
This may sound like a simple and timeworn premise, and some critics have lazily compared it to the Tom Hanks classic “Big,” in which a 12-year-old boy becomes a grown man overnight after wishing he could be big. Many of the critics who have knocked it, resulting in a 35 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, completely miss the point of the film through their obsession with viewing everything through a PC lens, which I’ll explain in a moment.
What matters is how this movie plays with real audience members, the very women it speaks to in an American society obsessed with looks and weight over personality and spirit. I saw it in a packed theater in Chicago last Friday, and the audience burst into loud applause at the end, while both the woman I attended with and five of my guy friends all teared up and laughed hard at all the appropriate moments — reactions that reflected the rare A-rating it received on the national audience survey Cinemascore.
The film follows Schumer as Renee Bennett, a lonely single woman who works in order fulfillment for a glamorous cosmetics company run by the family of supermodel Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams). Renee is trapped in a dingy office in the far reaches of Brooklyn, working only with a disgruntled man named Mason (Adrian Martinez) while dreaming of being the receptionist at the company’s Manhattan headquarters so she can be around Avery and the action on a daily basis.
One night, Renee is watching “Big” on television when she runs out in a rainstorm and wishes at a fountain that she could be pretty. She’s disappointed when she wakes up frumpy and alone yet again, but after she’s knocked unconscious in a hilariously freaky gym accident, she suddenly believes that she’s the most beautiful woman on Earth.
Her newfound confidence makes her unstoppable, and soon she’s found a new boyfriend in a sensitive slacker named Ethan (Rory Scovel), has the job of her dreams and is enlisted by Avery to be a target-audience expert when the company launches a new discounted product line aimed at average women. She also goes from being a fly on the wall to the proverbial bull in a china shop, attracting comical levels of attention with every move she makes — leaving one to wonder what the consequences will be if she snaps back out of her new state of mind.
“I Feel Pretty” is written and directed by the duo of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who have previously collaborated on smarter-than-average looks at life in the city for single women in “How to Be Single” and “He’s Just Not That Into You.” They outdo themselves here with a script that is by turns heartfelt and hilarious, but most importantly empowering, and not just for women.
As I mentioned, my group of five straight guys dragged into the theater by one female avid Amy fan were all highly impressed by the movie throughout. But it not only provided a touching and astute look at what life is like for far too many women who are seen as “plain Janes” or worse by society to strike a chord with those of either gender who feel they’re treated as second-rate in life for any reason.
The smartest part of the film stems from the fact that Kohn and Silverstein never show Renee looking at a literally different person in the mirror, but just simply seeing her normal self in a whole new and vastly improved light. As she inspires others around her, the movie winds up hitting a rousing home run that recalls the classic Melanie Griffith comedy “Working Girl” and even feels akin to being a “Rocky” for women.
Unfortunately, some critics have knocked the movie as actually being fat-shaming because of the very fact that it addresses the issue at all. They have claimed that if someone like Schumer is considered an example of ugliness, then that itself is part of the problem.
Yet if Schumer is willing to admit and build her career around joking and commenting on the fact that she feels disregarded by society and proudly ignores it, that is entirely her call to make in taking the role. She is shining a much-needed spotlight on the cruel absurdity of basing a woman’s value to society on her looks alone.
Schumer’s performance is a wonder as well, particularly in a standout sequence in which she ties a T-shirt into a tank top with ample midriff and twerks her way through a bikini contest with hilarious gusto. Yet she also digs deep to reveal the depressing mire she’s allowed herself to be trapped in for too long, showing impressive range that marks her as a talent to watch intently in the future.