• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #285: Shallow Hal


Jumanji!

We all know a guy (and have, at times in our own lives, been a guy or even - gasp - a girl) like shallow Hal Larson. Superficial, caught up in looks and external beauty, dismissive of those we perceive to be physically flawed (even as we tend toward plumpness ourselves and break few hearts with our own charms). Look, we're all human. We're all partial to a pretty or handsome face, to nice legs or abs or hair or whatever. There's nothing to be ashamed of in admiring the well-made form of another human. Beauty, after all, is an ancient ideal espoused by the Greeks along with intellect, excellence, courage, and other virtues. Even in the absence of a universal standard, we can accept and even enjoy our ability to perceive beauty in one another.


The problem (one of them, anyway) is when we worship the physical above and absent all other virtues, that we hold beauty (whether as commonly or personally defined) as the sole worthwhile characteristic in others. Look, we all know that society celebrates certain sizes, certain skin tones, certain measurements, and that we've been programmed by both biology and glossy magazines to value some people above others based on how they approximate those somewhat arbitrary and increasingly unrealistic ideals. Hal, the would-be player, the commitment-phobe, the objectifier of women and pursuer of narrow standards, is presented unsympathetically in the film Shallow Hal as the queasy avatar of the kind of crude frat-boy mentality that invests too many of us to some degree.


Of course, this being a comedy, and one featuring the then-still-charmingly-funny Jack Black, our Hal has an awakening, courtesy of a weirdly mystic Tony Robbins, who hypnotizes the jerk into seeing inner beauty rather than the superficial. I've always been a little curious about why the movie chooses to present all ostensibly beautiful women as ugly inside, and all plus-size women as internally gorgeous - it seems as sweeping and inaccurate a generalization as the reverse. But it's a movie, and if we don't peer too close, the conceit works for humor and a smidgeon of social commentary. Hal of course falls in love with Gwyneth Paltrow's Rosie in and out of her fat-suit. I've always wondered where the supposed consciousness-raising is in all of this if Hal is seeing her as the slim, sexy Gwyneth. But again, I suppose the lesson here is that when he sees her as she truly is, he learns that his love wasn't based on her looks but on her soul.


Look, it's an imperfect movie, but it makes me laugh and makes me think about these things in a different way. Being a Farrelly brothers flick, there's plenty of offbeat co-stars (Jason Alexander with a tail, for instance), and the soundtrack is pretty worthwhile. At the end of the day Hal seems to have found some truth, and some love. I'm not sure we can ask much more than that.

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