Does ‘Hal’ Send Mixed Signals?


When Marilyn Wann went to see “Shallow Hal” last weekend in San Francisco, she noticed two things. One, the theater was packed. And two, it was packed with thin people.

After she saw the comedy, Wann said she understood why. Although the movie purports to celebrate an obese woman’s inner beauty, she said it actually feeds on recycled fat jokes and perpetuates the last culturally accepted stereotype: that fat women are pathetic, ugly and safe targets for humor. Wann, a 5-foot-4, 270-pound activist who helped pass measures against weight and height discrimination in that city last summer, said, “Personally, I don’t feel any gratitude for a movie that profits at my expense.”

“Shallow Hal,” the latest offering from writer-directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly, opened last weekend to solid box office ($22.5 million), mixed reviews and protest from the plus-size community.


Singer Carnie Wilson, who lost 155 pounds, said the movie brought back painful memories of when she weighed 300 pounds. “It was hurtful in my heart,” she said. Even though the Farrellys were well-intentioned, she said, “If they targeted a cultural minority group or certain ethnic groups, people would not stand for it. I don’t see why we should accept this with an overweight person.”

The 20th Century Fox movie has sparked a debate about inner beauty among advocates for overweight people. One group called for a boycott. A spokesman for another called the movie a “touching love story.”

The uproar has forced the Farrellys (whose previous films include “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary”) to defend their film even as they promoted it. “Our whole point has been misconstrued,” said Peter Farrelly in a telephone interview from his Cape Cod home. “We intended to show there’s a lot of humanity out there, and if you don’t judge people on what you or the world considers to be a classic American look, you may be in for a big surprise on who you fall in love with.”

Most criticism has been based on the trailer, which shows the 300-pound lead character Rosemary (played by Gwyneth Paltrow and body double Ivy Snitzer) breaking chairs, gulping a milk shake and cannonballing into a pool, knocking a child into a tree with the splash.

Linda Ramos, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. to Advance Fat Acceptance, said: “There’s a scene when she comes out in her negligee and throws her underwear on him. The panties would fit a 500-pound woman. That’s just outrageous. Then there’s the part where she jumps in the pool. People are already afraid what will happen to them if they encounter a person of size.”

Farrelly said he was not responsible for the trailer. “You may go in expecting an hour and 45 minutes of fat jokes, and you find out there’s 20 minutes of that. That’s when Hal’s shallow. After that, it’s really the slow growth of Hal into becoming a whole person,” he said.


Most viewers get it, he said. “If the whole world thought what [the critics] are saying, I’d be devastated and apologetic. I’m not getting that.”

Obesity, in one form or another, has become a popular subject these days in Hollywood.

“Up until three or four years ago, you never saw a fat person in a movie,” said Sandie Sabo, spokesperson for the Sacramento-based National Assn. to Advance Fat Acceptance, which called for the boycott. Since then, some leading comedic actors have donned fat suits--Eddie Murphy in Universal’s “The Nutty Professor,” Julia Roberts in Revolution Studio’s “America’s Sweethearts” and Martin Short, Damon Wayans and Brad Pitt on television shows. The romantic pairing in DreamWorks’ animated movie “Shrek” is one of overweight ogres, lonely and outcast until they meet.

“It’s in vogue right now to pick on the fat folk. It’s the last safe prejudice,” Sabo said. “It’s the only legal thing you can poke fun at and not get socked for.”

In “Shallow Hal,” Hal (played by Jack Black) is a less than spectacular-looking man who pursues only the most svelte and gorgeous women until he meets self-help guru Anthony Robbins. Robbins hypnotizes Hal to ignore appearances and see only a woman’s inner beauty. When Hal bumps into Rosemary shopping for lingerie, she appears to him in the slim and lovely form of Paltrow. Naturally, he is smitten.

In certain scenes in which her face is visible, Paltrow wears a fat suit to play the real Rosemary. Paltrow later told interviewers how she felt ignored and invisible when she wore the suit in public. But her attempts to empathize with obese people fell short with big-is-beautiful advocates like Wann. “She doesn’t get the real experience where you can’t take the suit off. If she wants to know what it’s like, she should ask us.”

Sensitivity of overweight people to the movie will vary according to the amount of rejection and discrimination they have experienced, according to Allen Steadham, director of the Austin, Texas-based International Size Acceptance Assn. That could make the movie more painful for women. “It’s very clear,” he said, “women experience 99% of it, and men get about 1%.”

He said when the film’s superficial flaws were overlooked, “it was a surprisingly sweet and touching love story.”

Hal chases gorgeous women only because his dying father told him to in the movie’s first scenes, Peter Farrelly explained. Hal’s definition of beauty as slim and lovely comes from his own perceptions, not those of the filmmakers, he said. In the end, when he comes to his senses, he makes a decision with his heart and his eyes--without the rose-colored glasses.

Wann doesn’t buy it. “If I were dating his character, I would have dumped him,” she said. “I did not feel the love in this movie.”

She said the movie still risks alienating an estimated 40 million adults, roughly 20% of the population, defined as obese by government standards.

Researchers say that even though media images idealizing thinness have been linked with devastating effects, they have been frustratingly resistant to change. According to Heather Johnston Nicholson, researcher director for Girls Inc., a national youth organization, “If inner beauty means Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s still problematic. That’s what girls are taught all the time. To create a false self so people will see them as Gwyneth Paltrow.” Such definitions of ideal beauty have contributed to eating disorders, isolation and self-rejection, she said. Girls as young as 6 are now taking diet pills, she said.

Yet Hollywood has made some positive changes partly as a result of people like Camryn Manheim, a plus-size, Emmy-winning actor on ABC’s “The Practice,” who has fought for roles that are not specified for overweight actors, Sabo said.

Even critics agreed that “Shrek” was one movie that got it right. In the story, Shrek, a large, green ogre, falls in love with a beautiful princess who, unbeknownst to him, is another ogre under a spell. When the truth is revealed, true love blossoms and they live happily ever after as two green ogres.

Farrelly, however, says Shrek sold out. “She has to turn into an ogre to be with him.... They couldn’t be happy together with her being beautiful and him being an ogre. Our movie didn’t do that. We’re saying it’s not about appearances.”

Farrelly said he and his brother always listen to criticism, but the current controversy won’t change the way they write future projects. “You can’t write out of a sense of fear,” he said. “You write and listen to your own god and stay true to it. And that’s what we did.”