Ethics & Public Policy Center

Shallow Hal

Published in EPPC Online on November 8, 2001



Admittedly, Hollywood hypocrisy can hardly be said to be a new thing, but even in the venerable and storied annals of that vice in that place, there can be few more spectacular examples than that of Shallow Hal, by Shallow Peter and Shallow Bobby Farrelly. You’ve almost got to admire the chutzpah with which they set out to moralize to us about the shallowness and immaturity of judging women on the basis of their appearance in a movie which stars Gwyneth Paltrow — who occasionally appears, admittedly, in a computer- enhanced fat-suit. Actually, we don’t see Gwyneth in the fat-suit until three quarters of the way through the film. Up until that point, we only see Gwyneth in all her incredible — and incredibly slim — loveliness, though we are meant to believe that everybody but us and the hero, Hal (Jack Black) sees the fat girl.

Hal, that is, has been hypnotized. Or rather, according to his guru, Anthony Robbins (Anthony Robbins) “de-hypnotized.” Like the rest of us, according to Robbins, he has been hypnotized by “society” to see only outward beauty. He has enabled Hal to see the inward beauty instead. Fortunately, we too see beautiful Gwyneth, rather than her fat-suited alter ego — presumably, because we have acquired along with Hal the ability to see inner beauty as if it were that nasty, shallow, sexy, skin-deep beauty that a conspiracy of advertisers and (some other) Hollywood scenarists and casting directors has only equipped us to see. As Homer Simpson would say: Stupid society! But come on, guys. Why not have the courage of your convictions and cast an actual fat girl in the part?

I think we all know the answer to that question. Because nobody would come to see the fat girl, while lots and lots of people will come to see Gwyneth. And not the inner Gwyneth either. The Farrellys may pretend to dislike the sort of alleged shallowness that enjoys looking at attractive women, irrespective of their characters, but they certainly aren’t averse to making a buck off of it. It is not, perhaps, irrelevant that the only way they have of demonstrating the alleged goodness of Rosemary, the fat girl played by Miss Paltrow, is by having her volunteer as a “self-esteem” counselor in a children’s hospital and rejoin the Peace Corps when, as it very briefly seems, her heart has been broken by the sudden opening of Hal’s eyes. This is not to deny that self-esteem and vague promises of “help” to some South Sea island’s women and children are worthy commodities, but couldn’t they have hit on something beautiful in itself and not merely to be inferred from an institutional affiliation? The creeping suspicion arrives: could it be that they don’t know inner beauty when they see it?

It is interesting to me that they also make Rosemary the daughter of a billionaire (Joe Viterelli) who just happens to be Hal’s boss. At one point, Hal’s sidekick, Maurizio (Jason Alexander) comes out and says to him: “You’ve got to admit you wouldn’t be talking to this woolly mammoth if her father wasn’t the president of the company.” Fortunately for Hal, he hasn’t got to admit this, thanks to Mr Robbins’s helpful deprogramming which temporarily conceals from him that she is a woolly mammoth. And by the time his eyes are opened, we are supposed to have forgotten about this little moral dilemma. Neither Hal nor the Farrellys nor anyone else wants to deal with the problem of a man’s dating an unattractive woman an attachment to whom is likely considerably to enrich him. The sort of magic wrought upon Hal by Mr Robbins may not be so rare when it is accomplished by money.

Could it be that Jack’s interest in tubby is not just a weird delusion but motivated by greed? Of course not. How could he love the goodness in Rosemary if he were not good himself? The millions that come with her are just an extra added bonus. For being good. And for being in a Hollywood version of a morality tale.

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