A knock on the noggin is all it takes to send the protagonists of I Feel Pretty and Netflix’s I Am No Easy Man into a fantasy world of skewed beauty standards and gender role reversals. In Pretty’s case, Amy Schumer falls off her Soul Cycle bike and wakes up thinking she’s morphed into a classically beautiful woman even though she’s hasn’t actually changed at all; in Man, Vincent Elbaz’s shameless chauvinist bumps into a street sign while rubbernecking it to check out a hot girl and wakes up in a world run by women. Schumer and Elbaz each manage to find and lose love in their new surroundings, following in the grand tradition of a film sub-genre I assumed to be dead: the high concept rom-com.
Of course, once upon a time rom-coms of all sorts reigned supreme, serving as a vital career stepping stone for innumerable actresses and generating impossible relationship expectations along the way. Then the film industry changed. Suddenly, the studios lost interest in anything that wasn’t language-neutral. TV blew up to provide a new home for all the wayward projects and discarded film genres, turning shows like The Mindy Project, Catastrophe and You’re the Worst into rom-coms for a new generation.
But, if we’re honest, even before all of that happened audiences were already getting sick of seeing the same old guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy and girl get back together plot Hollywood had been trotting out for longer than most of us have been alive. That’s why Hollywood increasingly turned to the high concept rom-com.
As The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr explained in 2013, “Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by […] So new complications must be invented, test-driven, and then, as often as not, themselves retired.”
That’s how we ended up with, to name a few examples, Big unofficially remade as a rom-com (13 Going on 30), Adam Sandler falling in love with Drew Barrymore despite her short-term amnesia (50 First Dates), Mark Ruffalo falling in love with Reese Witherspoon despite her being a ghost (Just Like Heaven), and Meg Ryan being won over by Hugh Jackman even though he’s a time traveller from the 19th century (Kate & Leopold).
I Feel Pretty and I Am Not An Easy Man belong to a slightly different line of high concept rom-coms, though. These rom-coms are less concerned with finding a new kind of obstacle to throw at wayward lovers and more preoccupied with using a fantasy gimmick to actually take a stab at inspirational messaging and/or something kinda, sorta approaching social commentary. Think Shallow Hal, What Women Want, Switch, or any other number of rom-coms which ultimately shout about true beauty being on the inside or how some men can only change if they’re forced to walk a mile in a woman’s shoes. That’s exactly what Pretty and Easy Man aspire to.
The problem is high-concept rom-coms like these are often not fully thought-out and come off as overly one-note in execution. They have a vaguely clever gimmick. It’s kind of funny at first. But they never stop hanging jokes on that same damn gimmick. It gets old. End of movie.
Pretty and Easy Man, sadly, each suffer from this. I Feel Pretty, especially, plays like an endless series of reaction shots where everyone puts on one of these faces as Schumer goes about her life as if she was a size zero Victoria’s Secret model:
The high concept at play, of course, is that there is no high concept, no actual fantasy being realized. Nope, just a woman with a possible concussion. Schumer’s Renee, a timid, body-conscious, computer room worker at a prestigious beauty product company headed by Michelle Williams (utilizing the most peculiar baby voice I’ve ever heard), actually watches Big at one point and runs out into the rain to wish upon a statue to make her beautiful. It doesn’t work, obviously, but it sets the stage for her wild leap of logic after the Soul Cycle mishap.
Interestingly, writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein opt against ever showing us exactly what Renee sees when she looks at herself in the mirror. So, there is never a visual contrast between what she sees and what everyone else sees. Instead, there’s just a lot of this:
That does beg some questions down the road, such as why Renee never notices the clothes she wears throughout the film are the same size as they’ve always been. Plus, the specter of this possibly being a mental health issue is never seriously broached until the end and even then it’s just a throwaway joke. So, ya know, this isn’t exactly Nurse Betty.
Just go with it, is the film’s implicit request, and with Schumer up there on screen so fully committing to this wonky premise it’s often hard to look away. Sometimes that’s because the film, thanks in part to its highly repetitive nature, just doesn’t work at all and the failure is morbidly fascinating. Other times it’s because the film suddenly connects, with the success always inked to Schumer’s considerable charm. Only she can turn a conversation with Lauren Hutton (playing Williams’ grandmother) about salad dressing into a crowd-pleaser.
Either way, the story plays out to expectations: thanks to her new I’m-so-damn-hot-and-I-know-it confidence, Renee gets everything she always dreamed of, including a promotion at work and a sweet-natured boyfriend (Rory Scovel, a perfect straight man to Schumer’s schtick) who loves her. No one is ever fully aware of her delusion but instead won over by her infectious attitude.
Third act complications arise, as they usually do, and the story begins to drag, crumbling a bit under its far-too-long 110 minute running time. By the end, when Renee inevitably learns her lesson about inner beauty/confidence and delivers an inspirational speech Schumer again sells the absolute hell out of it, but there’s still something slightly off about it all, a sign of a film forever at war with its own premise.
Williams greets her afterward by declaring, “That was super weird, but also very effective.” It’s the perfect summation of the entire film, really. I Feel Pretty is a weird one, for sure, but also effective in its own predictable, overstuffed way. The relationship between Schumer and Scovel is more central to the plot than you’re probably expecting, and at times it’s easy to forget the premise of the film and simply enjoy the two of them as a joking, supportive, perfectly matched couple.
The French-language I Am Not An Easy Man has slightly higher ambitions. Its goal is to re-purpose rom-com tropes – a little bit of Switch’s womanizer-reborn-as-a-woman here, a skosh of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’ romantic machinations there – to directly speak to the #MeToo era. The story weaves in background references to ongoing sexual misconduct scandals and even includes a quietly effective scene exploring the soul-crushing aftermath of sexual harassment. In the end, the characters end up at a woman’s march together, and it’s a surprisingly powerful image. It’s a shame the film takes so long to get there.
The fantasy concept kicks in around the 10-minute mark. By that point, we’ve seen enough of Damien (Elbaz) to peg him as a relentlessly cocky cad who has never much pondered why he’s like that or what his behavior does to women. He’s simply never had to worry about such things. His longtime best friend, a married author with a pregnant wife and several kids, tolerates and even partially envies him. Women at work indulge his jokes and pick-up attempts because it’s easier to just let him be. As far as he’s concerned, any woman who rejects or dares confront him is either just a boring feminist or a challenge to be conquered.
Then the twist happens. Unlike Switch, which imagined a womanizer reborn as a woman, Damien simply wakes up in an alternate dimension where he’ll be treated like a woman. In fact, all men there are. That’s because, as we are later told, in this dimension the earliest women on the planet both gave birth AND hunted for the food while the men tended to the children. The rest of human history followed suit and resulted in a world where women wear the pants (literally; there’s not a single skirt in sight) and display what we commonly think of masculine traits and the men are the objectified gender displaying what we would think of feminine traits.
To be clear, not everything has changed. Damien still has the same friends, family, apartment, cat, and job as an app developer, yet nothing is exactly the same. His best friend’s beleaguered wife, for example, is now the one who gets to sit on the couch and watch sports while the husband bakes cupcakes and hopes someone will eat them so he doesn’t have to (he’s perpetually trying to lose weight). Damien’s former male boss is now a secretary dutifully fetching drinks for the woman who used to be the only girl in all of their meetings. Now she’s the one in charge and Damien’s the sole guy in all of the meetings. Of course, he’s the only one who knows anything about this is different from the way things have always been.
It’s easy to tell where it’s all heading – Damien is going to learn the error of his ways by getting a taste of his own medicine. Sure enough, he’s treated like a piece of meat, subjected to sexual harassment at work, sexually assaulted at a bar (the women in this dimension are shown on a couple of occasions to be physically stronger than men), not taken seriously by his female superiors and co-workers, and hounded by his meddling father – while emotionally distant mom watches TV – over why he hasn’t found a wife yet.
Incredulous at first, Damien eventually adjusts to life in this new dimension, which means engaging in time-consuming beauty rituals (so much waxing), worrying more about what he eats, and changing the way he dresses to tighter pants, more shorts, and sometimes even the equivalent of a push-up bra for his butt. He does all of this with little joy but does eventually concede it’s not all bad – purses can be super convenient!
Eventually, the rom-com portion kicks in and he meets and falls for a woman, Alexandra (Marie-Sophie Ferdane), who is essentially his female counterpart. But, ala How to Lose, she’s a writer secretly using him and his talk of a male-driven world as the subject for her new book. She predictably starts to feel bad about it as their bond grows more genuine, and familiar rom-com tropes play out, albeit with the genders reversed.
That’s all fine and good, but the true joy here is hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t feature some clever spin on classic male/female gender roles, either directly highlighted or snuck into the background. A buttcrack-showing female plumber uses the world “fatherfucker” instead of “motherfucker.” Alexandra disdainfully calls Damien “masculist” exactly the same way he used to call women feminists. Male joggers have to stay covered up whereas it’s perfectly acceptable for female joggers to do so topless.
And so on.
Clearly, Easy Man aims not to simply rehabilitate a womanizer but also highlight just how insanely gendered our world is, from magazine covers, bus stop ads, pop songs and movies, who ends up working in what kinds of jobs, what behavior is considered acceptable in relationships, and just about anything else you could think of. Writer-Director Eleonore Pourriat leaves almost no gender-inverted stone left unturned. She has a field day with one particular scene of Damien watching a romantic film in which a couple has just had sex and the camera objectifies the man’s back and ass as he talks to his lover about his misgivings over the shape of his shoulders (they’re not wide enough, he complains).
There’s something empowering but also depressing about all of it. The notion of a world in which men and women actually work together and are not simply dominating one another doesn’t come up until the very end, which turns into easily Easy Man’s most powerful scene. Much of the time building up to that point feels remarkably clever, but also repetitive. The more interesting film might have been to start in Alexandra’s dimension and then drop her into ours. We’ve seen the womanizer-learns-the-error-of-his-ways story before, albeit never quite like this. Alexandra, however, is something new. Too bad we’re stuck focusing on Damien.
I Feel Pretty is high concept but also decidedly mainstream in its execution. Twenty years ago, it probably would have been directed by Nancy Meyers or The Farrelly Brothers and made hundreds of millions around the world. Now, it’s a tweener from a mini-major funded by China (STX Entertainment), and it’s been a source of controversy from the moment its trailer dropped. I Am Not An Easy Man is comparably more ambitious and also freer to experiment. Regrettably, both films hit the same note over and over again, but only one of them has a trance-like scene in which a drag queen enticingly sings “You’re the One That I Want” with the gender pronouns reversed. If that sounds intriguing then give Easy Man a look, and if you’re an Amy Schumer fan Pretty‘s worth watching at some point. It’s better than its toxic reputation would lead you to believe, but if that premise upsets you the film won’t do much to win you over.