Last night, Peter Farrelly picked up an Oscar statuette, as Green Book took Best Picture. The guy who co-wrote Shallow Hal, one of the most disgusting, offensive, and downright cruel movies of the early 2000s, now has an Oscar.
For Farrelly to pick up an award for a movie that clearly flatters itself as a thoughtful, progressive film is ironic in several ways. His initial claim to fame in popular culture was his work with his brother, Billy, on There’s Something About Mary, a movie whose most famous laugh line revolves around a woman unknowingly smearing cum in her hair, which was played as hilarious rather than the creepy violation that it would be in reality. And during the course of the promotion of Green Book, Farrelly had to apologize for repeatedly flashing his dick on the set of There’s Something About Mary.
But it’s Shallow Hal that holds a special place of hatred in my own heart. The movie is a double fat joke: Jack Black’s Hal is a deluded clown for thinking he deserves to be with the hottest women out there, who is cursed in retribution to see a fat woman as beautiful. It’s insulting to everyone: schlubby guys, conventionally beautiful women, and women who deviate in any way from the standard definition of attractiveness. But it saves its particular cruelty for fat women. Rosemary is called a “rhino” and a “woolly mammoth.” She eats constantly. The central conceit of the movie is that the only way a fat woman can be loved is to be loved in spite of her body; the movie allows no possibility that a fat body could be considered a beautiful body.
Hal initially tries to pick up Rosemary by making fun of the oh-so-hilariously enormous underwear which she is clearly wondering whether will be big enough. Rather than telling him to fuck off, she leaves with him and they go on a lunch date together, where her chair collapses out from under her. She shrugs it off, saying chairs routinely collapse out from underneath her. And in fact, an entire bench collapses underneath her later in the movie! This is supposed to be somebody who weighs around 300 pounds, by the way. They put Paltrow in a fat suit whose effect is bizarre in the interests of making Gwyneth’s face recognizable, as opposed to making her look like Gwyneth would look if she were still fat, which is to say, still beautiful. (In pictures from the movie’s premiere, Paltrow’s body double, Ivy Snitzer, looks super cute.)
You really just want someone to come along and rescue this sweet, vulnerable character from this entire hideous setup.
Of course, that’s not how Shallow Hal sees itself. Shallow Hal is supposed to be a break with the Farrelly brothers’ previous work like Dumb and Dumber. It’s supposed to be an indictment of Hal’s shallowness and a tribute to inner beauty. Here’s what Farrelly told the Chicago Tribune when fat activists complained:
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.”
He blamed the trailer for the uproar: “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.” Oh well, if it’s only 20 minutes of fat jokes! (It’s not only 20 minutes of fat jokes.)
There’s a common flaw between Shallow Hal and Green Book: condescension. Both movies condescend to learn that characters who aren’t white men are actually people; they congratulate themselves for bothering, but that’s as far as they go. Shallow Hal presents a constant stream of fat jokes—it’s absolutely not just 20 minutes, in fact the final moment of the movie is a fat joke about how much Rosemary weighs down the car—as some meditation on the value of inner beauty. Fat women aren’t total garbage, if you just look beyond the fact that they are objectively disgusting! Green Book steals the name of a book created by an African American man literally as a survival technique and uses it to tell a story about a white man generously coming to see a black man as his equal and thereby magicking away the problem of centuries of institutional racism.
The difference is that nowadays, nobody involved in the making of Shallow Hal particularly seems interested in bragging about it. It’s been quietly consigned to the early 2000s and the less enlightened era of Maxim. Green Book won an Oscar.