Amy Schumer in I Feel Pretty (Photo: STX Entertainment)

★★  (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein
STARS Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams

Important issues receive an often problematic presentation in I Feel Pretty, an exercise in empowerment that ultimately proves to be less than the sum of its parts. Or should that be body parts, given the film’s laser-like focus on outward appearances?

Amy Schumer stars as Renee Bennett, a woman who’s miserable because she doesn’t look like all the wafer-thin beauties who work out alongside her at SoulCycle classes or who appear in ads for Lily LeClaire, the makeup conglomerate for whom she toils in their remote basement office. But after catching the Tom Hanks comedy Big on television – and studying the scene in which little Josh Baskin is granted his wish by a Zoltar machine – Renee makes a similar plea to become beautiful (instead of Zoltar, her wish is directed at what she imagines to be a magic fountain).

The next day, Renee’s wish is granted – sort of. Falling off a stationary bike, she bumps her head and wakes up believing she has been physically transformed into a RoboBabe. Of course, she looks exactly the same, but her belief in her physical makeover results in a newfound confidence that, among other developments, nabs her a boyfriend in the sweet and sensitive Ethan (Rory Scovel) and emboldens her to become the receptionist at LeClair HQ, where her unflagging enthusiasm captures the attention of founder Lily LeClaire (Lauren Hutton) and her grandkids, superstar models Avery LeClaire (a great comedic turn by Michelle Williams) and Grant LeClair (Tom Hopper).

As the self-loathing Renee, Schumer delivers a strong performance that poignantly punches across the feelings of insecurity and anguish experienced by anyone who has ever believed they don’t measure up to a shallow society’s lofty standards of perfection. And as the self-confident Renee, she’s effective in her ebullience, even if she’s nowhere near as endearing as Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect or Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids (two plus-sized actresses allowed the rare opportunity to play assertive and sex-positive roles). Part of the problem here rests in the unfortunate character turn devised by writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein. Unlike the aforementioned heroines essayed by Wilson and McCarthy – and also unlike Hanks’ man-child in Big – Renee doesn’t remain a decent human being; instead, her delusion leads her to start treating those she deems not beautiful, like older people and even her longtime best friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips), with a certain measure of contempt and dismissal. It’s a perplexing plot point that renders her far less sympathetic, and if the film’s notion is that people should be judged by their inner beauty, then what are we to think when the lead character displays an ugliness at her core?

Of course, Renee learns her lesson by the end – treat everyone equally! – but the film’s muddled messages do little to similarly educate viewers. Renee’s speech about loving yourself for who you are arrives as she’s hawking a new makeup line – umm, OK? The efforts to push across the notion that the pre-bump Renee is a complete ogre are absurdly over-the-top, as evidenced by such cringe-worthy bits as a jerk mistaking her for a “Sir.” (Really? With those lips, those curves, that hair?) The attitudes toward some of the supporting characters are also ill-advised, such as the insulting gags involving Renee’s socially awkward and overweight colleague (Adrian Martinez) and his image problems (the “highlight” finds him dropping his toilet paper roll as he’s combating diarrhea) and the patronizing bits directed at the pretty people (Renee is shocked – shocked! – to learn that hotties have problems, too).

Kohn and Silverstein were the scripters responsible for such dismal endeavors as He’s Just Not That Into You (sagely described by my wife as “the type of movie where feminism goes to die”) and Valentine’s Day, so it’s admirable that I Feel Pretty is at least reasonably entertaining and doesn’t actively kill brain cells. But while it seems to have its heart in the right place, it’s ultimately too flat-footed and wrong-headed to do a body good.

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