As Ugly As I Seem

The second disc in my boxset of Farrelly Brothers flicks was Shallow Hal (2001), starring Jack Black as the eponymous ass who gets hypnotised by life-coach Tony Robbins into seeing people’s “inner beauty”, rather than their skin-deep physical appearance… which is a pretty interesting premise for a story, but the execution here is deeply, deeply flawed.

Gwyneth Paltrow as ‘Rosemary Shanahan’ in “Shallow Hal”For one thing, the other characters talk about Hal as if he’s a good-natured, stand-up guy, whose obsession with chasing hot young chicks is just a personality blip… but since this “blip” is all we ever really learn about him, it actually defines his whole character, and makes him seem like a total dick. Likewise, we’re expected to believe that his love interest ‘Rosemary’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) is an adorable angel, despite the fact that she’s actually quite unpleasant and unsympathetic in her interactions with others. For example, the first time she meets Hal’s equally-shallow pal ‘Mauricio’ (Jason Alexander), she snidely makes fun of the clothes he’s wearing… and you could argue that she’s making a defensive attack prompted by the way he reacted when he first saw her, but surely a truly “beautiful” person wouldn’t be making those sorts of digs at all? And this is no slam against Paltrow, who I’ve found very sweet and charming in plenty other roles… but for all the hype about her character’s wonderful soul, she didn’t say or do anything here to make me fall for her, regardless of how she looked in hot-pants. True, Rosemary does do a lot of worthwhile volunteer work… but (as I’ve learned from personal experience) that doesn’t actually mean that a person is as patient and tolerant in their off-duty life as they are when they’re on-the-clock… and it doesn’t mean that they’re going to make a compatible romantic partner either.

There’s also the fact that when we see the “inner beauties” Hal is chasing from a more objective perspective, they aren’t just depicted as plain or “homely”, but made-up to be super-ugly pantomime grotesques… and Rosemary isn’t just overweight, but heavy enough to bend steel chair legs and capsize boats, like a cartoon. I realise that’s part of the “joke”, but if no one laughs is it still technically a joke? The movie also suggests that ugly or overweight people all have big hearts and wonderful personalities, while outwardly beautiful people are all superficial and mean… which is patently untrue.

Brooke Burns as ‘Katrina’ in “Shallow Hal”On the complimentary side, I will say that this movie did make me cry a little… in fact the sub-plot about Hal bonding with the kids in the hospital actually had me getting a little pre-emptively teary, before those scenes even came around… so kudos to Black and Brianna Gardner (who plays lead moppet ‘Cadence’) for the work they did here. Fun fact: Brianna is the daughter of Tony Gardner, the special-effects-makeup-artist who worked on this movie, as well as many classic horror flicks. The supporting cast also included an uncredited Molly Shannon as Hal’s mother (in a flashback)… Black’s off-screen chums Kyle Gass and Laura Kightlinger as co-workers… Susan Ward as his hottie neighbour… and Brooke Burns as ‘Katrina’, the first “inner beauty” Hal chats up after being hypnotised, only to meet her again post-trance and see her as she really is. Burns played both versions of the character, and I still thought she looked pretty attractive wearing the fake “ugly” make-up in the later scene… she also seemed a lot nicer than Rosemary personality-wise, so I can’t help wondering why Hal didn’t bother to call her!

Note: Unsurprisingly this movie was far less successful than Mary, so the DVD doesn’t even have a “chapter selection” option on it, let alone a commentary!

About Dee CrowSeer

A comic book writer with an interest in feminism, philosophy, and affirmative action. He/him.
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5 Responses to As Ugly As I Seem

  1. I remember when this movie came out… Man, nobody liked it.

    • deecrowseer says:

      To be fair, it did make pretty good money at the box office… but it’s certainly not a movie I’ll ever bother watching again…

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  3. gingersister says:

    So, as a rather large woman myself, I felt that the movie didn’t accomplish what it set out to do, and it relied on some quite tired jokes rather than changing the way the humor surrounds physically ‘ugly’ people. I think your critique is quite appropriate. On a side note, I remember reading an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow, at the time, talking about the experience of living in the fat suit. She talked about the change in peoples attitudes towards her, especially at the craft services table, when she was in full fat suit getup. She was surprised at how people reacted to what she ate, even knowing it was her under that suit. It was an interesting look at prejudices that the movie, even given its premise, didn’t really accomplish.

    • deecrowseer says:

      Apparently Lifetime made a TV-movie called To Be Fat like Me in which Kaley Cuoco plays a student-journalist who wears a fat-suit to see how people’s reactions to her change… it’s probably not very good, but I’d still be curious to see it sometime…

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