There’s a fine line between identity politics and legit empowerment.
The happy surprise in “I Feel Pretty?” is how deftly this amusing rom-com walks it.
It’s not a strut, mind you. Nothing in this Amy Schumer romp is that assured, or confident. Heck, the film’s signature shtick isn’t as funny as the marketers would have us think. Still, the message embedded here is one both men and women can cheer, even if the film takes direct aim at the fairer sex.
Forgive that pre-woke phrase.
Amy Schumer is Renee, a worker drone adrift in a makeup company’s basement office. She toils alongside a comatose co-worker (Adrian Martinez), the kind whose dead-eyed stare is contagious.
Renee feels left behind in a culture that prioritizes being thin and beautiful. We can relate. So can Schumer, who’s fashioned her career from addressing these plain truths.
So when Renee shows up at SoulCycle (part of the product placement jamboree) she’s all too aware of the svelte women infesting the gym. She’s determined to join their ranks, which leads her to an embarrassing tumble.
That bonk on the head, a device stolen from countless prior movies and shows, changes her world view. Suddenly, she sees herself as gorgeous. Desirable. A 10, to use another generation’s staple of beauty.
So she lands a coveted gig as a receptionist as her beauty company. The firm is run by a plastic Michelle Williams (very, very funny) and her cagey granny (Lauren Hutton … is it appropriate to call her ageless?). Renee also scores a new beau (Rory Scovel), a mensch who shares her pre-head bonk insecurities.
The “Pretty” screenplay’s stealth weapon? Scovel’s character. Ethan is real and rare in big screen comedies. We saw a version of him in Bill Hader’s beau in Schumer’s “Trainwreck,” too.
He’s a bona fide regular Joe, and his reactions to romance ground every fantastical bit “Pretty” has to offer. And it has plenty.
The signature sequence? Renee enters a bikini contest thinking her rockin’ bod was made for such events. Ethan is initially protective of her, knowing she doesn’t have the kind of curves, or lack thereof, that sousled souls cheer in such a contest.
She wins Ethan over, along with everyone else in the bar with her unbridled performance. Schumer is excellent here, showing how confidence can be as sexy as six pack abs.
FAST FACT: Amy Schumer placed fourth in the NBC reality series “Last Comic Standing” in 2007.
“I Feel Pretty” still has plenty of imperfections. The third act feels perfunctory, not inspired. The laughs are frequent but rarely contagious. The story doesn’t make full use of Renee’s gal pals (Busy Philipps, Aidy Bryant), who have good reason to boo their pal’s “transformation.”
“Pretty’s” big surprise? Neither Renee nor the screenplay lecture us of how unequal society is when it comes to beauty standards. We can see that for ourselves, thank you. We also live in in ways large and small.
We don’t need a comedy to bore us with those details.
HiT or MIss: “I Feel Pretty” isn’t a laugh riot or a two-hour lecture. It’s an amusing rom-com with a twist both sexes can appreciate.
“LITTLE PINK HOUSE”
Hollywood has a way of making blue collar characters look sad, if not downright inauthentic.
You’ve seen this before. A beautiful star or starlet dresses down, leaves the makeup behind or simply softens their natural charisma.
We can often see right through it, despite superlative acting tics.
It’s one reason Catherine Keener’s work in “Little Pink House” is so rewarding. She plays Susette Kelo, the Connecticut woman forced out of her home by the deeply unpopular Supreme Court decision. Keener disappears into the role, along with a cast that appears stripped from actual events.
That, plus a screenplay chock full of surprises, charge what might have been a formulaic underdog tale.
Keener’s Susette works as an EMT in her New London neighborhod. The small town suits her just fine. She has friends, a job that needs her skills and a home she paints a lovely shade of pink.
It’s not much, but it offers her a view of the water and a chance to live life on her own terms. Only other folks have designs on her little pink abode.
Developers want to scrape the lands around her property for new projects, the kind that offer jobs and other financial rewards. And they don’t care that homeowners like Susette don’t want to move.
They’ve got the law on their side. Or so they think.
Jeanne Tripplehorn co-stars as one of several villains here, although mustache-twirling moments are kept to a minimum. She plays a take-no-prisoners type trying to win Susette and her fellow homeowners over to the glories of their development plans.
It’s the right thing to do, her character pledges, waving phrases like “social justice” around like a broadsword.
“Little Pink House” meticulously details the key events behind Susette’s fight, down to the dates flashing on screen. What sounds dull on the surface is rarely that.
FAST FACT: Susette Kelo’s stand inspired a rash of citizen uprisings. At least 44 projects citing eminent domain died in the five years following the Kelo decision thanks to citizen activists following Susette’s lead.
Writer/director Courtney Moorehead Balaker injects every scene with a welcome dose of reality. Susette plucks a stray string from her suit. Her beau (Callum Keith Rennie, also excellent) woos Susette in ways you’d never see in a romantic feature.
Even the big moment when we learn how the Supreme Court ruled in the case unfolds in a fashion so unexpected we’re momentarily confused.
That’s sharp storytelling.
BONUS: Interview with “Little Pink House” director Courtney Moorehead Balaker
Balaker’s camera captures the City of New London in ways that underscore Susette’s fight. It’s no paradise, just a hamlet with a quiet, dignified beauty. That doesn’t require dazzling overhead shots or special filters.
It’s just like Keener’s character. Real. Plainspoken. Worthy of respect.
“Little Pink House” is a message movie, no doubt. It takes a firm stand against eminent domain abuse, and what it means to everyday Americans. Yet the other side gets their say. The lawyers opposing Susette think they’re on the right side, too.
Susette wouldn’t be denied. She’s a reluctant hero, uneasy with the spotlight and all it brought. Keener masters that discomfort as well as the pain she endures every step of the fight.
HiT or Miss: “Little Pink House” isn’t just an “important” film. It’s one with heart, substance and the good sense not to condescend to its unlikely heroine.