It’s incredibly difficult to remain dry-eyed while watching Michelle Williams act.
The four-time Oscar nominee most often appears in tear-jerkers and practically demands empathy, best captured by her nominated performance as a grief-stricken mother in “Manchester by the Sea.” Randi (Williams) runs into ex-husband Lee (Casey Affleck) years after a bitter divorce brought on by the death of their three children. She sobs, mourning their shared loss and pleading with him to mend their relationship. Williams lost the Oscar to “Fences” actress Viola Davis — a more-than-worthy opponent — but my goodness, Randi’s pain radiates.
So what a surprise it was to discover that Williams plays a prominent role in the new Amy Schumer vehicle, “I Feel Pretty.” Perhaps less surprising, she winds up being the best part of the film. Williams outshines her co-stars as timid cosmetics company chief executive Avery LeClair, proof that she steals almost every movie she’s in — even if that movie happens to be a comedy.
Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a woman with low self-esteem who bumps her head at spin class and suddenly considers herself to be the most beautiful person she knows. She works for cosmetics company Lily LeClair and, after changing positions, moves from a dingy basement office to the glamorous Fifth Avenue headquarters. She gawks at the elegant chief executive who seemingly represents the fashion industry’s elitism. Then, Avery opens her mouth.
Williams revives the breathiness of her “My Week With Marilyn” voice here, taking its pitch up a few notches. Her wavering speech — something of a cross between a sick baby and an elderly woman — is the opposite of what Avery appears to be. The babyish quality might match her pastel, puppy-printed clothing, but it doesn’t reflect Avery’s credentials as a Wharton graduate and former clerk for a Supreme Court justice. The vocal fry gets you every time.
But, as with Renee, what makes the audience laugh also proves to be what concerns the character most. Avery cowers in fear of her tough grandmother Lily LeClair (Lauren Hutton), which, coupled with insecurities about her voice, cripples her ability to do her job. Williams’s made-up face purposefully relays little, leaving her squeak and well-timed one-liners to do the heavy lifting. In one scene, she memorably pronounces the name of the department store Kohl’s, “KO-holes.”
Avery is a departure for the actress, who, after her breakout role in “Dawson’s Creek,” built a career on playing distressed women. Before Randi, Williams played parts such as the troubled (heartbroken) wife Alma in “Brokeback Mountain” and the troubled (destructive) wife Dolores in “Shutter Island.” Though a supporting character in both films, Williams captivates viewers during her scenes. By the time news of “My Week With Marilyn” rolled around in 2010, it made perfect sense that Williams would play one of the most tragic figures in Hollywood history.
“I Feel Pretty” hasn’t fared well with critics, many of whom have taken issue with the script’s convoluted message about beauty standards. But most have found reason to praise Williams, who elevates the rather two-dimensional figure with a clever performance. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called Avery’s voice “delectably funny,” and Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson referred to the character as the film’s “one bright, shining beacon of hope.” Variety’s Peter Debruge deemed this “hands-down the funniest performance” of Williams’s career.
The film doesn’t give us much, but it allows us to witness the comedy magic that Williams once exhibited as a ditsy teen who helps expose Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal in 1999’s “Dick.” Avery is a ridiculous character — more so a complement to Renee’s silliness than a foil — and her grating voice is certainly unpleasant. But even when she bemoans, “I sound like a freaking moron,” you somehow can’t help but want to hear more.