Improving Self Image

The film Shallow Hal's depiction of fat people is the subject of an article in today's New York Times. The article talks about the feelings that avoirdupois-inclined individuals have about the movie. Unfortunately, I think both the article and the spokespeople from a variety of self-image groups don't understand the narrative of the film.

The people quoted in the article say that the fundamental flaw of the movie is that inner beauty is presented as thin, beautiful people. In fact, that's not the way the movie works. Jack Black's character Hal sees Gwyneth Paltrow as thin because it is the only way in which he can map his positive feelings onto someone.

As the film progresses, and he loses his momentary inner-beauty goggles and starts seeing these pretty people as their actual selves, the filmmakers confront us with our own shallowness: we were willing to ascribe all manner of positive traits onto these individuals when they were conventionally beautiful. Now, we must accept them for who they are, knowing - as Hal does - that they're decent and wonderful.

The movie doesn't fall back on trite premises and show us those characters as physically beautiful again. Nope, we see the young burn victim, the gangly Peace Corps volunteer, the huge Hawaiian fellow, and so on. Each of them has been revealed to us through Jack's eyes in a sort of idealized manner, expressed through conventional beauty, but we must accept them as they actually are in the end.

What's nice about the ending of this film, without revealing too much of it, is that we don't get what has become an uber-trite necessity for all film finales: a set of quick flashbacks of the whole movie, because, you know, audiences are too stupid to recall events from 60 to 90 minutes before. I've seen this device used even on the greatest of films, so I assume it's a studio invention in those cases.

Not with this movie. At the end, we see Gwyneth in all her glory, and we all love her, too.