Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

Hal: Does she take the cake or what?

Mauricio: She takes the whole bakery, Hal.

Shallow Hal (2001)

One of the truly rewarding experiences that comes from being more than merely a casual movie watcher is the sensation of seeing a story that has something genuine to say — and doesn't have to hit its audience over the head to say it.

I felt that was the case with "Shallow Hal," which premiered on this day 10 years ago — except that, initially at least, I may have been a bit shallow myself.

When I saw the trailers for the movie, I lumped it with a sub–genre of comedy that specializes in cheap jokes at the expense of certain segments of the population — in this case, obese people. And I decided that I would not contribute, in any way, to the exploitation of people who have probably struggled with weight issues all their lives.

I was wrong to prejudge it that way.

A few years later, I was talking to a co–worker who told me he had purchased the DVD of that movie. "What did you think of it?" he asked. I confessed that I had never seen it. He said he would bring it for me to borrow if I would promise to watch it. I promised — and darned if he didn't bring it to me the next day!

"It's better than you think it is," he told me.

So I watched it that night — and he was right. "Shallow Hal" was, in reviewer Roger Ebert's words, "surprisingly moving at times."

My friend was right. It was much better than I thought.

Now, I have always thought that Gwyneth Paltrow is an exceptionally attractive woman, and I figured that any movie that would require me to look at her for nearly two hours wasn't a complete waste of time.

I approached the assignment of watching the movie with a certain amount of resignation.

I had been true to my original position. I had not contributed to the exploitation of obese people. I didn't buy a ticket, and I didn't buy the DVD.

I figured that, if I had to watch the movie, I had avoided contributing to its financial success (and it has earned a handsome profit). I had lived up to my end of the bargain. And my reward was to watch Gwyneth Paltrow — who was quite a bankable star in those years right after she won the Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love."

As I say, I have always thought she was attractive. And I had been gaining respect for her acting ability with her other recent performances in movies like "Great Expectations" and "Sliding Doors."

But it took considerable talent for her to play both the svelte Rosemary that Jack Black (playing a womanizer who had been hypnotized and could see only a woman's internal beauty) saw and the massive Rosemary that everyone else saw — and she deserved to be commended for wearing a 25–pound "fatsuit" and facial makeup that not only gave her the appearance of an obese person but also the sensation of being an obese person.

That is an important distinction, I think.

As I understand it, there are really two different kinds of fatsuits.

One kind re–creates the appearance of additional weight but is, essentially, weightless. An actor who is wearing such a padded suit under his/her clothes will appear to be obese but will not experience what life is like when one must carry around additional pounds — how an obese person must ease into a chair or a booth or walk through narrow doorways at an angle.

The other kind of fatsuit is the kind that is weighted. It is designed to give the wearer the sensation of obesity, not merely the appearance. And that is the kind that Paltrow wore.

It was bound to influence the way she played the part.

I guess I was put off by the reputation of the Farrelly Brothers, the movie's writers/directors/producers. They were known for making movies that relied heavily on a lot of slapstick and off–color humor. I'm not necessarily opposed to that kind of humor except when it is used to poke fun at those who are weak and vulnerable.

It's like kicking a guy when he's down.

But when I saw "Shallow Hal," it was clear to me that the Farrellys had gone to unusual lengths to build audience empathy for obese people and send some serious messages about modern society and its treatment of those with severe weight issues.

I applaud Paltrow for wearing a weighted fatsuit, but if I was going to criticize that, I would say that the extra weight was not in proportion to the size of the character she played. An additional 25 pounds on someone of Paltrow's build would be noticeable but far from morbidly obese.

And it would take someone who was morbidly obese to buckle the steel legs of a chair merely by sitting in it.

Poor Rosemary, I thought when I watched "Shallow Hal" the first time. How difficult and painful her life must be.

But Rosemary was honest about herself and her emotions — and she had some lessons to teach people who judge others too harshly.

The judgmental ones were the ones to be pitied.