DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The comedian Amy Schumer became a movie star with her 2015 comedy "Trainwreck," which she co-wrote. Her third big screen comic vehicle, "I Feel Pretty," opens today preceded by some noteworthy negative publicity. Film critic David Edelstein explains.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The Internet backlash against the Amy Schumer comedy "I Feel Pretty" began early, based on the trailer. And it rested on the idea that the movie is about how an ugly woman becomes beautiful. That's an understandable mistake but a mistake nonetheless. It's a funny, deft, in some ways conventional rom-com about a woman with painfully low self-esteem who hits her head and suddenly sees herself as madly attractive. Behaving as if she's the most gorgeous creature on earth might make her an object of hilarity. But her stratospheric sense of self-worth disarms everyone she meets.
Schumer didn't conceive "I Feel Pretty." It was written and directed by the team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein. But it fits into her TV show "Inside Amy Schumer's" history of challenging men on their caveman aesthetic and those women who feel they have no choice but to accept male definitions of beauty. Along with Lena Dunham, Schumer has been on the front lines, as Twitter jackasses have argued that a woman who looks like her shouldn't even have her own show, a criticism she transformed into an ingenious parody of "12 Angry Men" in which a jury of overentitled male dweebs debated her hotness.
Her character in "I Feel Pretty," Renee Bennett, stares forlornly into the mirror and attempts to compensate for not looking like a fashion model - the kind of women who walk around in micro-miniskirts at the corporate office in which she wants to work, an Estee Lauder-like makeup company overseen by Michelle Williams' blonde and beauteous Avery LeClaire. Renee rewatches the movie "Big," in which a kid who longs to be a grown-up is magically transformed. And then she goes and wishes at a fountain to be, quote, "undeniably pretty." It doesn't happen then. But the next day, she goes flying off the bike in spin class, bangs her head and thinks her wish came true. Believing she's a guy magnet, Renee banters at her dry cleaners with an unassuming bearded man played by Rory Scovel.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I FEEL PRETTY")
AMY SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) You probably haven't been here before, but you have to wait in line and take a number.
RORY SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Oh, all right.
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) I can grab it for you, yeah.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Oh, thank you.
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) I just - here.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Thank you.
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) And this guy just calls out, like, the number completely out of sequence.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) OK.
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) It's like a weird game of Bingo.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) All right.
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) But no one wins. So yeah.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) What's your number?
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) So this is how it happens, just like that. Wow.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Just like what happens? Like what?
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) That is very clever.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) I don't know why that's clever. What is clever? I was just asking...
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) What's your number? And then I go, oh, 118. And then you're like, no, your phone number.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Oh.
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) Yeah. You are good. How long have you been hanging onto that little nugget?
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) I haven't. I haven't been holding onto that. That's not a nugget at all.
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) You don't hang out in a lot of dry cleaners and hit on perfect girls? That's - wow. All right. Give me your phone.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) My phone?
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) Give me your phone. I'm going to give you my number.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) Are you still talking to me?
SCHUMER: (As Renee Bennett) Don't chicken out now.
SCOVEL: (As Ethan) I'm not chickening out.
EDELSTEIN: That scene's loose, overlapping dialogue as two characters on different wavelengths do and don't connect is one of the movie's glories. Rory Scovel stays in the film and proves an inspired straight man for Amy Schumer's Renee, a social outcast with little romantic experience who comes to see her as a life force. You can go with or shrug off such rom com contrivances, though co-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein are masters of them, having written the wonderful "Never Been Kissed" with Drew Barrymore.
"I Feel Pretty" is by leagues Schumer's best film. Her motormouth delivery has a high-wire quality, as if she's babbling for her life. And her pratfalls have a ballerina's precision, probably enhanced by the editor, Tia Nolan. When Renee spontaneously enters a Coney Island bikini contest, the scene could be squirm-inducing. But instead, it's exhilarating because Renee is at home in her body. As the shellacked and baby-voiced mogul Avery LeClaire, Michelle Williams has a lyrical melancholy. She's a smart, educated woman who feels as trapped in her body as Schumer's Renee does in hers and stuck with a voice she's unable to change.
The movie suggests almost no one has the appropriate level of self-esteem. "I Feel Pretty" can be criticized as too rosy on the grounds that the power of positive thinking can only get us so far. Indeed, it can even reinforce the repressive social norms it claims to challenge. But Renee's positive thinking has such a dizzy, life-affirming charge that she makes you believe if she's not quote, "pretty," it's because the definition of pretty is inadequate. It needs to be elasticized or maybe blown to smithereens.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo. His new memoir is called "Air Traffic: A Memoir Of Ambition And Manhood In America." Some of the things that figure into his story - his father losing his job when Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union, joining the Marine Reserves and then wanting out, and being on a reality TV show with his family. Join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "BELLE FEMME DE VOODOO")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.