Shallow Hal and the Never-Ending Fat Joke

The romantic comedy premiered 20 years ago. Its cruelties refuse to age.

Treatment of a still from 'Shallow Hal'
20th Century Fox / Everett; The Atlantic

In 2001, doing press for Shallow Hal, Gwyneth Paltrow spent a lot of time talking about the fat suit she wore to play Rosemary, the film’s romantic lead. She spoke in particular about an experiment that she and the film’s makeup-effects designer had undertaken to test the suit’s credibility out in the world. At a fancy hotel in New York, Paltrow donned the fake weight. She walked through the lobby. She walked to the bar. She noticed how people looked at her, and how they refused to. “It was so sad,” she told one reporter. “I didn’t expect it to feel so upsetting,” she told another. “I thought the whole thing would be funny, and then as soon as I put it on, I thought, well, you know, this isn’t all funny.”

Paltrow’s assessment of this experience—apparently funny, not all funny—doubles as a pretty decent review of the film she was trying to promote. Shallow Hal is a fat joke with a 114-minute run time. From the moment it premiered, in early November of 2001, it was poorly aged. It’s tempting, 20 years later, to look back on Shallow Hal and feel we have cause for congratulation: The movie is bad, and we know it’s bad, so progress must have been made. (Paltrow herself, expressing regret last year about her part in the film, called it a “disaster.”) But Shallow Hal has not been relegated to the annals of cinematic shame. On the contrary, it has retained a revealing currency. It has expanded its reach through streaming services, where it is popular and even beloved. And it speaks to a culture that still interprets fatness as a condition that deserves whatever mockery it might get. Shallow Hal could never decide whether Rosemary was a human or a humiliation. Its confusion remains all too timely.

The story goes like this. Hal Larson (played by Jack Black) is a generally sweet guy with an overarching flaw: He judges women by their appearance, refusing to pursue romantic relationships with women who don’t look like models. One day, through the combined forces of magical realism and the self-help seller Tony Robbins, Hal gets an attitude adjustment. Robbins hypnotizes Hal, ensuring that he will see people’s inner beauty reflected on the outside. Then he meets Rosemary Shanahan (Paltrow), who is smart and funny and fun and kind, and who weighs about 300 pounds. Rosemary looks like Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit. Filtered through Hal’s new gaze, though, she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow. That interplay of vision and reality—the cosmic wrongness of Hal’s perception—is the film’s defining joke. “The biggest love story ever told,” its promotional poster promises with a wink.

A promotional poster for 'Shallow Hal.'
Twentieth Century Fox / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

Does the spell eventually break? Does Hal finally see Rosemary as she is? Does this celebration of Rosemary’s personality offer a torrent of jokes about Rosemary’s body? Yes. Over the course of the movie, Rosemary breaks not one but two seats: a flimsy chair at a burger joint and a booth at a fancier restaurant. When she and Hal go canoeing, Hal’s side of the boat tips into the air, like a seesaw trapped in the upswing. And when she and Hal go swimming, Rosemary, diving in, creates a wave so powerful that it deposits a kid into a tree. “Sorry,” she says, somehow both defined by her size and oblivious to it.

Shallow Hal was directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who had previously brought to the world Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and other films known for their giddy unions of humor and heart. In promoting the film, the Farrellys tried to argue that Shallow Hal was similarly nuanced. The people who were offended by the movie, they insisted, had missed the point; the film was challenging callous stereotypes, not endorsing them. It was exploring the meaning of a big body in a world that makes space only for small ones. That it treated Rosemary’s weight as setup and punch line at once was apparently just part of the satire. “This movie’s heart is in the right place,” Peter Farrelly insisted when Shallow Hal premiered. The film’s makeup-effects designer, Tony Gardner—the orchestrator of Paltrow’s fat suit—echoed this claim. The Farrellys, he said, “are not making fun of [Rosemary’s] weight, they are embracing her weight. Peter calls it a valentine for overweight people.”

If so, the film is a dubious gift. And its grim condescensions remain familiar. Rosemary’s primary function in Shallow Hal, beyond absorbing the movie’s mockeries of her, is to facilitate Hal’s self-improvement. Both roles are demeaning. But the film suggests that she should be happy for whatever she can get. “Personally, I don’t feel any gratitude for a movie that profits at my expense,” the fat activist Marilyn Wann told the Chicago Tribune shortly after Shallow Hal premiered. The singer Carnie Wilson, whose weight had been tabloid fodder for years, called the movie “hurtful in my heart.”

“Rosemary breaking things” is not the only strain of humor in this film. Shallow Hal also has great fun with the notion of “Rosemary eating things.” Early on, she explains to Hal that she long ago realized she’d be the same size whatever she ate. It is the most empathetic line in the film. (In the world beyond the movie, studies show that some 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail.) But the brief moment of grace is overshadowed by the film’s more deeply held conviction: that a fat woman caught in the act of eating is comedy gold. We see, for example, Rosemary and Hal sharing a large chocolate milkshake; when he turns away for a few seconds, she speed-drinks the entire thing. Later, she asks Hal’s co-workers for a piece of the cake they’re carrying—and then helps herself to an extremely large slice. Cut to Rosemary walking away, clutching the cake in both hands as she munches.

No real person would do that. But Shallow Hal, for all its lofty claims of charitable humanism, is not interested in what real life would be like for Rosemary. It is interested merely in mining her body for LOLs. After a while, even its lazy jokes make an accidental argument: They suggest that Rosemary’s body is a problem, not just for her, but for others. Over and over again, her weight—the food she eats, the space she occupies—takes something away from other people, whether it’s a milkshake meant for two or a cake meant for 20 or a pool meant for all. Shallow Hal is bad because it treats Rosemary’s body as comedy. But it is insidious because it treats her body as tragedy.

And the movie casts a long shadow. Many Americans still see other people’s weight in precisely the same way that Shallow Hal does: as a problem that affects everyone (“the obesity epidemic,” “the war on obesity,” etc.), and is therefore the business of anyone. A New York Times column published earlier this year reported that some people had put on pounds as they navigated the traumas of a global pandemic. Noting the correlation between weight and COVID mortality, the piece chided these people for their negligence. Its author went on to explain her superior practice of self-control: “My consumption of snacks and ice cream is portion-controlled, and, along with daily exercise, has enabled me to remain weight-stable despite yearlong pandemic stress and occasional despair.”

The brand of thinking underlying such smugness—that fat people are merely thin people who aren’t trying hard enough—is mythology that easily expands into bigotry. One of the grimmest elements of Shallow Hal is that, underneath it all, it understands Rosemary’s weight to be more than a matter of will. But it mocks her anyway.

The years since Shallow Hal premiered have seen several paradoxes at play in American culture. Scientists have been learning more about the genetic factors that contribute to body weight, and about the metabolic adaptations that make weight loss, if achieved at all, extremely difficult to sustain. Over the same period, bias against fat people has grown. (A Harvard study of some 4 million implicit-bias tests taken between 2007 and 2016 noted a drop in several biases measured, including those related to race and sexual orientation. Bias based on body weight was the only one that increased.) As the lexicon of body positivity has made its tentative forays into American mass culture, that culture as a whole also continues to conflate thinness with wellness, wellness with health, and health with moral superiority.

In one of the decidedly unpoetic ironies of this moment, the woman who described the “sad” minutes she spent navigating the world in a fat suit is helping to enforce those equations. But Paltrow’s is only one voice in a chorus that treats big bodies as deviant bodies: Adele, having lost weight, is portrayed as triumphant; Lizzo, having not, is portrayed as “brave”; Donald Trump is criticized not only on the grounds of his harms, but also on the grounds of his heaviness. The ABC sitcom American Housewife, which ran for several seasons starting in 2016, dedicated its pilot episode to its main character’s realization that, after a woman she calls “Fat Pam” moves away, she will be the “second-fattest” woman in town.

Hollywood has given us many other characters who are thus flattened, among them Fat Amy and Fat Betty and Fat Thor and Fat Monica and Fat Schmidt. It has served up cruelties in the name of comedy. The actor and comedian Olivia Munn, “joking” in her memoir: “I will fix America’s obesity problems by taking all motorized transport away from fat people. In turn, I will build an infrastructure of Fat Tunnels, where all the fat people can walk. This will create jobs and subsequent weight loss.” The comedian Nicole Arbour, in a viral video: “Fat-people parking spots should be at the back of the mall parking lot. Walk to the doors and burn some calories.” The TV host Bill Maher, on his show: “Fat-shaming doesn’t need to end; it needs to make a comeback. Some amount of shame is good.”

What’s notable about the “jokes,” beyond the fact that they barely qualify as jokes at all, is that they are framed as expressions of concern. They embrace Shallow Hal’s wayward logic: that making fun of fat people is a way to help fat people. The creator of Insatiable, the revenge fantasy of a fat-turned-thin teenager that streamed on Netflix starting in 2018, tried to rationalize the show’s bland bigotries in the same way that Shallow Hal’s creators had: by insisting that they were critiquing weight stigma, rather than perpetuating it. The 2018 movie I Feel Pretty takes the Farrellys’ premise—magic that makes one see the world differently—and aims it inward, at a woman who becomes convinced that she looks like a model. The film’s creators also insisted, unconvincingly, that they were going for satire.

When Shallow Hal premiered, some reviews echoed its creators’ marketing messages. The Times dubbed the movie a Critic’s Pick, claiming that the Farrellys “cunningly transform a series of fat jokes … into a tender fable and a winning love story.” Roger Ebert argued that the Farrellys were “not simply laughing at their targets, but sometimes with them, or in sympathy with them”—and concluded that “Shallow Hal has what look like fat jokes … but the punchline is tilted toward empathy.”

The bar, in those assessments, is so low. And it remains low. Shallow Hal’s reviews on Amazon Prime, where it is currently rated 4.7 out of 5 stars, include praise for its “moral message” and its “surprisingly deep premise.” The raves are at home in a world that still treats fat not as a neutral description, but as a degradation. Even in its triumphal final scenes, its romantic messes having been tidied, Shallow Hal returns to its easy inertias. Hal tries to lift Rosemary up, and the camera zooms in on him as he strains, his face twisted with exaggerated effort. A few moments later, as the couple prepares to drive off into their happily-ever-after, they get into a car. Rosemary crushes her side of it. These are the true physics of a movie obsessed with weight. Shallow Hal does what so many people have done over the years, because American culture says they should: It looks at a fat person and sees nothing but a joke.