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Female insecurity is more than skin deep in “I Feel Pretty”

Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps, and Amy Schumer (L-R) in “I Feel Pretty”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

There’s a pretty simple reading of the new Amy Schumer movie from writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (the writing duo behind “Never Been Kissed” and “He’s Just Not That Into You”) because every headline focuses on Amy Schumer, the stand-up comic turned Emmy-winning sketch comedy force (“Inside Amy Schumer”) who teamed up with Judd Apatow for her feature film breakout (“Trainwreck”). Everyone has an opinion about Schumer. She’s a blond woman in a man’s arena, which makes her alternately too pretty for stand-up or too heavy to be an It-Girl. She’s also brazen about her sexuality and risqué on a host of other socially relevant political and cultural issues, guaranteeing that she’s pretty much got enemies on all sides.

So, casting Schumer as Renee Bennett, a woman working on the margins of the fashion industry who suffers from the all-too common insecurities of any woman outside the impossible beauty standards until a blow to the head convinces her that she’s attractive, will steer certain segments of the audience towards a particularly obvious conclusion. Unlike say the Farrelly Brothers movie “Shallow Hal,” which cast Gwyneth Paltrow as the inner beauty of a 300-pound woman that her shallow paramour (Jack Black) sees after being hypnotized, Kohn and Silverstein never allow us to see what Renee glimpses when she stares at her reflection. We come to understand that Renee believes those closest to her, like her friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps), would not be able to recognize her.

After a couple of throwaway scenes with Renee addressing this simplistic concern, Kohn and Silverstein tackle the real theme–overcoming insecurity. To Renee, being pretty instills in her a heightened sense of confidence. In effect, this becomes her social superpower. She’s like a mutant granted invincibility. It is fascinating to watch her saunter around the same world, where days before she was the ultimate wallflower. It is not merely that Renee is no longer invisible, rather she actively forces others to see and acknowledge her. At first, her good humor and kindness remain, ensuring that there is a decided degree of positivity at the root of everything she does.

Before long though, Renee starts to succumb to the dark side of the attention she believes she is attracting. Like a prized high school athletic prospect being catered to by fawning scouts, it becomes difficult for Renee to not want to indulge in the access she now has to the exclusive life on the other side of the velvet rope.

Curiously, “I Feel Pretty” offers up an intriguing contrast to Renee in the form of Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams), her immediate boss after her accidental “makeover.” Avery is the granddaughter of Lily LeClaire (Lauren Hutton), the matriarch of the upscale makeup empire seeking to rebrand itself as a more prize and consumer conscious entity. Lily, it seems, built the company from the ground up and remembers what it was like to come from nothing, whereas Avery—saddled with a high-pitched breathy voice that no one can take seriously—is the wealthy scion who attended the Wharton School and has no connection or sense of how the other half lives.

In the beginning of Renee’s rise, she speaks with the voice of everyday women who aspire to beauty on a shoestring budget and Avery, far from being a typically driven corporate careerist, actually listens to Renee’s suggestions. Unlike her grandmother, Avery is sometimes amazingly out of touch, but she desperately wants to understand.

The reason why is because, like Renee, Avery has her own insecurities. She knows what it’s like to not be taken seriously because of her voice and the wealth and privilege that has made her who she is. Taken a step further, Avery is envious of Renee, who seems so content in her own skin. Renee has charmed Lily and seems on the verge of usurping Avery’s position in her grandmother’s graces.

Of course, the difference between Avery and say, a male version of the character is that Avery never succumbs to petty maliciousness that easily slides into outright malice. There’s never a hint of the possibility of a cheap and potentially deadly catfight between Avery and Renee. Renee sinks into the quicksand in her own head, while Avery wisely steers clear of the internal minefield. Avery remains in the grip of her innate goodness and good sense. She stumbles along the way, but she never falters.

Part of the genuine fun of “I Feel Pretty” derives from watching Williams, a four-time Academy Award nominee (Supporting Actress for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Manchester By the Sea,” Lead Actress for “Blue Valentine” and “My Week with Marilyn”) commit to the idea of playing Avery as a self-aware person and not a vapid caricature. She borrows the Marilyn Monroe vocal affectation from “My Week with Marilyn,” but infuses Avery with a level of humanity that Schumer got so right in “Trainwreck,” yet struggles to achieve this time out. Thankfully, Kohn and Silverstein know that they’ve got Williams as an ace in the hole here, guaranteeing that “I Feel Pretty” has a real shot at winding up a winning hand.

Rating: PG-13; Grade: B+