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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fat on Film: "Shallow Hal"

Weekends are a great time to kick back and catch a good movie, so I thought I’d start recommending some films I’ve seen that deal with fat.

My first choice is “Shallow Hal”, a deceptively light comedy starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s deceptively light because it is a comedy, but the subject matter is actually very deep, and at least one of the scenes made a blubbering fool out of me. But I’ll get to that further in the review. It was directed by the Farrelly Brothers, the guys responsible for “There’s Something About Mary”, so if you like that kind of humour, you’ll enjoy this.

The plot: Hal (Jack Black) is a fun-loving, stereotypically shallow guy cruising the bars with his equally shallow best friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) in the hopes of finding hot chicks. Of course, neither one will settle for anything less than physically perfect, although neither one of them is perfect. (That kind of contradiction is all too common, isn’t it? Many men sporting beer bellies and balding skulls seem to think that their imperfections shouldn’t detract at all from their ability to snag a hottie, yet women are given no leeway at all. But that’s a topic for another post.)

One day, Hal gets into an elevator with the real-life Anthony Robbins, life coach and movitation-guru extraordinaire. The elevator gets stuck between floors. To pass the time, they start having a a deep philosophical discussion about love, and Robbins “hypnotizes” Hal into a change of perception: From that moment on, every woman he sees will become as physically beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside, no matter what she really looks like.

Soon afterward, Hal spots Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a supersized BBW in reality, but a beautiful, slender girl to Hal’s eyes. He sees her walking down a street and catches up to her in a store, where he quickly hits on her, much to her confusion. Due to her size, she’s suspicious of his motives, but he is so persistent and complimentary to her that she relents, and they start going out.

A lot of funny scenes ensue where other people see her as the "real" Rosemary, but Hal cannot see her for anything less than the beautiful, willowy Gwyneth Paltrow she is … and she is beautiful, in every way. She works on a burn unit at a children’s hospital, and wants to join the Peace Corps. When Hal introduces her to his buddy Mauricio, however, buddy is concerned that his friend is dating a monster and tries to talk him out of it. But Hal is firm. He is in love, and Rosemary is a babe. He simply cannot see her fat.

Mauricio is so concerned about Hal’s blindness to Rosemary’s flaws that he gets Robbins to “reverse” the spell. Only then does Hal finally see Rosemary in her true physical form, panics, and quickly bails. But he feels guilty about it, knows he still loves her, and decides to try and get her back. Rosemary is heartbroken, and is about to leave for a job with the Peace Corps. Can Hal get her back before she leaves? You’ll have to watch the movie …

The moral here is really deep and very beautiful: What do you really love about someone – how they look, or who they are? Can you love someone who looks less than perfect? And if you do, will you be able to stand up to society’s disapproval of that love? While physical attraction might be the initial precursor to a relationship, is it what ultimately keeps you there? This film does a very good job of examining this issue, and being really entertaining at the same time.

It's worth noting that some larger people might find some of the humour offensive. There are lots of scenes where the real Rosemary breaks chairs, practically causes a tidal wave when she jumps in a pool, and scarfs down plenty of food. But I think it's important that everyone has a sense of humour about themselves, fat or thin. We can all make fun of ourselves in one way or another, and what  makes it more palatable is the deeper message within the film. Not all of the "ugly" characters are fat; there is one anorexic woman, and an "ugly" guy as well.

Jack Black is really funny as Hal, Jason Alexander plays his asshole friend to a T, and Gwyneth Paltrow is really sweet as Rosemary. Interestingly enough, Paltrow played both roles, slim and fat. For the “fat” role, she had to wear a specially designed fatsuit and prosthetic makeup. In an interview, she said that when she had her fatsuit and makeup on, “Everybody was very dismissive. I got a real sense of what it’s like to be a heavy person in this country and how people are so insensitive and degrading.” She also said, “I would never have any concept of what it is like to be a heavy person, had I not done this movie …” So much for having a “real sense” of what it’s like to be a heavy person, huh?

“Shallow Hal” will make you laugh and cry (especially a scene on the burn unit, which turned me into a blubbering pile of mush).

Check it out. It’s a good time!


  1. I despised the movie Shallow Hal. The cliches about fat people were so cringe worthy and demeaning. For example, Rosemary is seen eating a whole pie, or tipping a canoe, or jumping into the pool and emptying all the water. How shameful.

  2. Hey Tina,

    Yeah, I hear you. That's why I included the paragraph about how some people might find it offensive.

    The reason the film worked for me was, first of all, you have to remember the genre here: (stupid, jerky comedy) - so you kind of have to expect juvenile, rude humour.

    Second of all, although Rosemary's character was the stereotypical fat girl most people imagine us to be, she was also extremely likable and positive. Everyone who watches this film I'm sure is rooting for her and loves her.

    Lastly, the underlying message of the film is what won it over for me. The basic premise being that ultimately, love has very little to do with looks and everything to do with how you feel about a person.

    I do agree that some of the fat "sight gags" could be construed as offensive, however, you can't always take offense at everything. You have to have a sense of humour sometimes, and put things in context. And although some of the fat jokes were annoying, I have actually known some fat people who did break chairs, and who eat a whole lot. It's not okay to make fun of them, but you have to pick your battles, you know? It's good to have a sense of humour about yourself and not take everything so seriously. The basic message of this film is that fat people are just as lovable as anyone else, and isn't that a good thing?

    Of course, to each his or her own, and if you hate it, you hate it. I just found this film kind of endearing and sweet despite its occasional idiocy, but that's just me.