Okay, I hate to do this, but I'm going to have to start this article out with a massive spoiler explaining exactly why I chose "Shallow Hal" to be the subject of a Motherfucking Masterpieces feature. Most of you probably have some familiarity with the plot. Hal Larson (Jack Black) is, despite his own middling appearance, a superficial skirt chaser committed to bagging only the hottest of the hotties. For Hal, appearance is everything, at least until he gets trapped in an elevator with motivational speaker Anthony Robbins and the self-help guru grants Hal the ability to see an individual's inner self as represented on their exterior shell. Hal immediately falls in love with the seemingly lithe and beautiful Rosemary (Gwenneth Paltrow), who is, in reality, a hideous fat cow. During their courtship he visits her at the hospital where she works tending to sickly children. Hal is so taken by the sprightly youngsters that he cuddles up to them and tells jokes, further earning the wary affection of Rosemary. But towards the end of the second act of the film, Hal loses his rose colored glasses and goes back to seeing people as they really are. Desperate to find Rosemary, he returns to the hospital and discovers that the children he met earlier are actually patients in the hospital burn unit. Where he had initially seen them as shy but hopeful moppets, they now appear before him as horribly scarred victims. So I'm down at the gym, running on the treadmill, watching the scene on TBS or some shit and I actually start to cry. Yes, cry, like a little man-bitch! Jesus! When was the last time I cried? (Actually, I was reduced to an inconsolable bundle a of tears and snot during my last break up, but I saw "Shallow Hal" before that, so the question is, when was the last time I cried before I watched "Shallow Hal", and it had been awhile. Because I'm a hard-ass motherfucker.)
It may come as a surprise to readers that I would react so strongly to a film about the plight of the unattractive. After all, everyone who knows me knows that I possess a well structured, Adonis-like physique, topped off with features that would make Brad Pitt feel like Edward G. Robinson. How could one so blessed have a sympathetic understanding of those less fortunate? But don't be fooled by appearances my friends. Beneath my gilded frame is the sensitive soul of an artist!
Now I've never been a fan of the Farrelly brothers, the directorial siblings who manned the camera for "Shallow Hal". Their brand of edgy-but-ultimately-benign gross-out comedies --- epitomized by their breakout "There's Something About Mary" --- never caught fire with me. But I respect the fact that they've made a career out of embracing the underdog, eulogizing the freaks and geeks often disparaged by normal society. (They also seem to have a thing for physical deformity having made films featuring the obese, people with merged limbs, conjoined twins, and of course, Ben Stiller.) And I think they hit gold with "Shallow Hal", a movie that skillfully combines straight up comedy (deftly performed by Jack Black) with darker more ponderous themes, resulting in one of the most thoughtful ruminations on the politics of beauty Hollywood has ever produced.
This topic --- lookism --- is one that's been on my mind lately. And I've started to wonder whether, for all our talk about race and gender, appearance isn't the greatest divider of people within our world. (I know, I know, the Nazis never rounded up "uglies" but bear with me*.) Few among us rise to condemn lookism, not many more to condemn fatism**. Why is this? Because we all know we're guilty. Racism? That's the work of those people wearing white hoods down south. Genderism? I happen to be a proud misogynist but most people consider themselves above that sort of thing. But when's the last time we personally judged someone by their attractiveness? I bet we could measure it in minutes. Black, White, gay, straight, man, woman - there's a piece of Shallow Hal in all of us.
* This isn't entirely true. The Nazis did condemn dwarves and people with birth defects to their death camps.
** Probably one of the loudest voices on this front was a woman I knew when I lived in Olympia, Washington, Nomy Lamm.
But there's an inverse to this. No matter who you are, you're also familiar with the experience of being judged by your appearance and found wanting. (Well, I'm not, but I hear it sucks.) We've all been Shallow Hal, but we've also all been Gwenneth Paltrow's Rosemary.
When I recently re-watched "Shallow Hal", I was reminded of another comedy classic that touches on the topic of people's external appearance versus their inner self: "Revenge of the Nerds." Like "Nerds", "Shallow Hal" manages to make salient and meaningful observations about how humans interact with each other, within the confines of what is essentially a stupid comedy. And the movie doesn't just observe, it prods, even condemns the viewer. "Shallow Hal" acknowledges that judging others by appearance is an inborn human trait, but then asks whether we can do better. If such reproach of the viewer were made in a "serious" film, it would seem heavy-handed. But audiences don't mind a little medicine with their sugar. It's that whole Nixon in China thing --- by being dopey, "Shallow Hal" earns the right to be profound.
This is best illustrated in a scene from the film that the Farrelly brothers wisely decided not to play for laughs. Hal and Rosemary have had several dates and she's gradually warming to him. But as they are poised to separate for the night, she asks him to stop incessantly complimenting her features. She launches into a well-crafted speech on the fact that she knows what she looks like and she's learned to accept it. Hal, who of course sees Gwenneth Paltrow, is baffled by these statements. How can you not think you're beautiful, he wonders, causing Rosemary to storm off, tearfully scolding Hal to "Grow up." At first, her behavior would seem contrary to human nature. Who wouldn't want to be constantly told that they are attractive? But Rosemary has learned to bear the pain of being seen for who she is and mocked for it. What cuts much deeper, is being seen as something she's not and praised for it. It's the dichotomy of those two paths that has plagued mankind (particularly women) since the dawn of time. Certainly, to show yourself, flaws and all, and be judged by the often cruel, or at least careless eyes of your peers is difficult enough. But what is perhaps more painful is the act of suffocating your inner self, by adorning your exterior with glimmering trinkets and other distractions, praying that no one sees through your fašade*.
* I'm not wholeheartedly condemning the cosmetic and fashion industries here. I'm aware there's a legitimate amount of fun to be had dressing up and role-playing. (I can practically hear the husky voices of the drag queens from my old neighborhood, Seattle's Capital Hill, telling me I'm taking things too seriously.) But it's difficult to know when you've crossed the line between doing it for fun, and doing it out of self-loathing.
While Jack Black is certainly the star the film, there's no doubt that Gwenneth Paltrow is the soul of "Shallow Hal". I've repeatedly mocked Ms. Paltrow in numerous articles published on this fine website (and she certainly earned some of it by marrying the lead singer from the Worst Band in the World TM) but there's a name for what she does in "Shallow Hal" and it is acting! In truth, there's always been a certain sadness to her eyes, and a sense that she emphasizes with the underdog. Even when she's operating underneath a Pillsbury Doughboy-esque fat suit, I was struck by the utter believability of Paltrow's portrayal of Rosemary. She nails those subtle emotional details --- her eyes ever vigilant against revealing too much, the sides of her mouth always on the verge of turning to a frown. By all rights, when the fat Rosemary is onscreen, we should want to look away. After all, she represents every obese kid we ever made fun of in the schoolyard, every flat-chested teenage geek we brushed off in an effort to not lose face with the school beauty queen. Rosemary wears the pain of her existence on her face, but she has not succumbed to bitterness. Thus, when Hal finally sees the real Rosemary, and the first words out of his mouth are, "you're beautiful," we're inclined to agree. (Well, I was. If you aren't you're a heartless douche.)
I have to confess that this article has somewhat of a depressing post script. A couple nights after I had re-watched "Shallow Hal" and navigated the firestorm of internal debate that had been set off by its viewing, I walked over to my local bar. I stood in the cavernous pub, downing a vodka tonic, and I happened to look across the room to observe a rather bulbous armed young woman demurely sipping a martini in the corner. And what was my first thought? "Geez, what a hippo!" After all that rumination about appearance, still my knee-jerk reaction was of the basest, cruelest kind. But then I looked again and realized this creature actually was a hippo. Right out of the African jungle. It must've quietly slipped in when no one was looking. (That bar is pretty dark.) "HIPPO!" I screamed, and suddenly everyone took notice of this 500 pound monstrosity in our midst. Aware that it had been sighted, the hippopotamus freaked and charged the room. During the ensuing panic three people were trampled to death and the bar was destroyed. The hippopotamus was safely apprehended by animal control and returned to the nearby zoo from which it had escaped. I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes it's best to let drinking hippos lie.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!