Shallow Hal, the new comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, is a movie with a message, several, actually.
Fat people have feelings—that might be one message. Fat people are all gluttonous slobs could be another. Charity work is for the hopelessly ugly and overweight: There’s a third.
An allegedly humorous fable about a man who suddenly sees women only as manifestations of their inner beauty, Shallow Hal is a movie for those annoyed by the politically correct self-restraint of Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor remakes. The total lack of irony in its vacuous storyline will delight audiences confused by the dramatic complexities of Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar. Pauly Shore would refuse to appear in a movie that relies so heavily on the repetitive use of a single joke.
Indeed, Shallow Hal is very nearly groundbreaking in its ability to simultaneously infuriate and sadden audiences critical of its offensive, unfunny plot gimmick. From early in his life, Shallow Hal (Jack Black) has been the mindless embodiment of all things misogynistic. He and revolting pal Mauricio, another caricature of male chauvinism played by the easily dislikable Jason Alexander, objectify and harass each woman unfortunate enough to cross their path.
The plot twist, as it were, comes during a brief encounter between the title character and self-help guru Tony Robbins, who somehow causes Hal to see women as physical reflections of their inner beauty. Hal’s world has been turned inside out (as have the women who inhabit it), but he doesn’t know it.
Naturally, he is thrilled by the attentions of Rosemary, who appears to him in the svelte form of Paltrow but as a 300-pound fat joke to everyone else. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the brothers behind There’s Something About Mary and this year’s disastrous Osmosis Jones, have made sure that every cliché is in place. Rosemary’s idea of a light snack is half a chocolate layer cake (shoved greedily into her waiting mouth with both hands). She has the unfortunate habit of breaking a chair each time she sits down. And watch out when she gets on the diving board.
Hal may be oblivious to all of this, but his friends and coworkers certainly aren’t. Mauricio’s primary role in the movie is to alert Hal to his faulty perception of the morbidly overweight Rosemary, whose charity work and Peace Corps background mean little to anyone, Hal included.
And therein lies one of the movie’s numerous flaws. Though the Farrelly brothers and main actors have all gone on record to shield the movie against charges of insensitivity, nothing can be said in defense of the illogic and double standards that plague it throughout. In theory, Shallow Hal is the story of a man jolted out of his mindless acceptance of cultural messages about weight and image. Yet Hal’s interest in the obese Rosemary stems directly from the fact that, in his eyes, she looks like Paltrow. As a result, the movie is guilty of reinforcing every cultural message it purports to denounce: Personal values such as kindness don’t matter, just as long as you think you’re dating someone who looks great.
The filmmakers are further thwarted by their decision not to cast “normal” looking actresses as the less attractive women Hal sees once his appearance-blind hypnosis wears off. Instead, we get actresses whose idealized bodies and faces have been altered with fat suits and prosthetic noses. This may simply be due to the nature of the roles—why an overweight woman would demean herself by playing one of these characters is beyond me. Nevertheless, the obvious “uglification” of female cast members lends no authority to the filmmakers’ alleged attempt to satirize American pop culture’s insistence on seeing only perfect faces and bodies.
The movie falters even more egregiously in stereotyping its attractive and less appealing characters. The Farrelly brothers seem to have made Shallow Hal under the belief that only the physically unattractive would volunteer their time at a hospital or with the Peace Corps. Being good looking, in their view, means you must also be superficial, selfish and stupid. It’s hard to know which suggestion is more insulting, but if pressed to make a choice, I’d go with the former.
Shallow Hal’s half-hearted attempt at promoting the idea of a love that transcends appearance does little to redeem its constant mistreatment of the overweight and unattractive. Poking fun at issues like body image is a treacherous endeavor, but not an impossible one. Weezer, in this summer’s music video for “Hashpipe,” successfully managed to satirize MTV culture by parodying the short-attention-span hyper-sexuality that so pervades music, movies and television. In the case of the “Hashpipe” video, the subject was not a Britney Spears or Cameron Diaz, but instead a pair of fighting sumo wrestlers. By fetishizing fleshy backsides instead of glistening lips and cleavage, Weezer turned MTV’s techniques against itself, making a brilliant statement about this country’s obsession with having the right proportions.
The same can’t be said for Paltrow, however, who may bear some responsibility for any rising tide of anorexia that follows on the heels of Shallow Hal. Though the actress manages to inject some sympathy for Rosemary, the boorish portrayal of her character and mean-spirited tone of the rest of the movie destroy any impact she might have had in elevating the Farrelly brothers’ sense of humor beyond that of a middle school locker room. In her fat suit, Paltrow is briefly captivating as her mistreated character begins to cry. In the context of the rest of the movie, however, it’s not clear whether her tears are intended as comic fodder. The moment proved a confusing one for the audience at one advance screening, with some laughing and others unsure how to respond. And though identifying Shallow Hal’s biggest flaw would require some intense debate, the lack of clarity in tone is undoubtedly a strong candidate. Black, who accomplished quite a feat in outshining John Cusack in last year’s High Fidelity, shows us zero acting range beyond comic. Rosemary and her fellow undesirables are treated with such insincerity it’s impossible to take the film’s closing “message” seriously. Yet nothing in this film is terribly funny either.
So much the better. The success of a movie like Shallow Hal would inevitably spawn more of its kind. And that would be an indignity—to the overweight, to the actors and to the movie-going public.