comedy

Roundup: the 52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival

It sucks that film criticism is a dwindling profession (and that I didn’t make life choices to result in it being my career), because I could live at film festivals.  I don’t do conventions, but I imagine that I like film fests for the same reason– it’s comforting to be in a space where everyone is excited for the same dorky reason that, in the harsh wilderness of the outside world, you feel relief if someone from the general population even knows what the heck you’re talking about.  And when there’s the opportunity to be in that space for two solid weeks?

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Well, that hasn’t been my experience yet, partially because I haven’t had the vacation time or the money for tickets, and partially because the first weekend of the Chicago International Film Festival (ChiFilmFest) is always the same weekend as the Music Box of Horrors.  But this year, finally, I had the opportunity to spend two solid days and then some at ChiFilmFest.  I skipped over the high profile entries that are going to be in theaters soon anyway (although I am looking forward to MoonlightLa La Land, The Handmaiden, and Arrival) and instead went for stuff that I’m not sure I’ll be able to see a second time, let alone in a theater: locally made indies, foreign films, shorts.  I don’t think I caught the breakout film of next year; the movies I saw ranged from underwhelming to pretty damn good.  I caught some interesting director Q&As, was part of the first audience in the US to see Andrzej Wajda’s final film, and got an obscene amount of free refills from the soda fountain at the concession stand.  The list of all the films I saw at ChiFilmFest are here.

The characters I saw were in wide variety, from an irrepressible Tibetan goatherd in Soul on a String to a closeted Quebecois track runner in 1:54.  There weren’t many instances where I was specifically impressed with representation of historically marginalized groups– notable exceptions were Pushing Dead‘s depiction of a person living with HIV/AIDS; the nuanced meditation on a young woman’s sexual agency in The View from Tall (cn: sexual harassment); and the rediscovery of black country blues artists during the 60s folk revival and its parallel to the civil rights movement in Two Trains Runnin’. And while there were some fat characters included in the 13 films I saw, none really stood out as anything different than the kind of representation I’ve grown accustomed to, unfortunately.  Here’s a quick rundown of them.

(CN: discussion of sexual assault)

“Superbia” (dir. Luca Toth)

An animated short that could be most simplistically described as a surreal world made up of two warring societies of men and women.  I’m not going to pretend that I understood what the film is trying to say, but it was cool to see characters drawn in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Night of 1000 Hours (dir. Virgil Widrich)

A magical realist murder mystery and allegory about historical responsibility, in which one Austrian family’s entire history comes to visit on the same night.  A notable fat character is a blowhard World War I-era police chief who is more concerned with maintaining rule of law than he is with bringing about justice.

Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda)

A biopic of the final years in the life of Polish abstract painter Władysław Strzemiński and his losing struggle against the government-mandated rise of socialist realism in art in post-WWII Poland. There was another line-towing fat police officer, a relatively small part.

Imperfections (dir. David Singer)

Cute, funny heist movie that, not unlike a Coen Brothers film, has a lot of quirky bit parts embodied by fat people, including an obnoxious department store manager, a mob heavy who asks the guy he’s trying to intimidate if he can use his bathroom, and a socially awkward guy who just wants to buy some drugs.

Middle Man (dir. Ned Crowley)

A black comedy that reminded me a bit of last year’s submission Entertainment, this film stars Jim O’Heir (Jerry from Parks and Recreation) as an overly-optimistic square headed to Las Vegas to fulfill his dreams of being a standup comic, but gets waylaid when he makes a bloody pact with a mysterious stranger.  (O’Heir joked during the Q&A afterwords that he would have been off the project if they were able to cast Jonah Hill.)  He’s the only fat character on the screen, but another fat historical figure is invoked.  And as temptation is a big theme in this movie, I want to tell you how I avoided what could have been the most obnoxious “well, actually” moment of my life thus far:

At the screening, writer/director Ned Crowley and Jim O’Heir were in attendance to do a q&a. There’s a scene in the film where a character has a speech that uses a historical anecdote to illustrate a point. The anecdote in question was the story of Fatty Arbuckle raping a woman at a party with a champagne bottle so severely that she died from the resulting injuries.

Now, I don’t have a time machine, but I do know that contemporary film historians largely agree that Fatty Arbuckle was not guilty of this crime and unjustly crucified by the media and resulting moral panic. And one of the reasons I know this is because I’ve read the essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness” by Neda Ulaby, which is included in the essay collection Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco), which I happened to have brought with me to the theater to read in between films. Plus I was sitting in the front section of the theater, so I both literally and figuratively could have thrown the book at the screenwriter. But I’m too classy (or is it spineless?) to do such a thing.

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Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men Wooing Thin Women: Hitch (2005, dir. Andy Tennant), The Tao of Steve (2000, dir. Jenniphr Goodman)

I like to present myself as a savvy, even cynical, consumer of media, so it’s a little embarrassing for me to admit my predilection for romantic movies.  After participating in the recent #fav7films on Twitter, 3 of my 7 turned out to focus on romantic relationships (4 of 10, if I include my extended list).  Look at this current series of articles!  A big part of this has to do with the escapist aspect of entertainment, which romantic movies have in spades by their nature.  They focus on the segments of relationships where people are acting their best, hormones at their strongest.  Even more grounded romantic films like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy involves relatively privileged people in idyllic settings; Before Sunset, the second installment (and my favorite), takes place in Paris, in real time, during the magic hour.  Of course, the characters who fall in love with each other are also idealized: they’re usually affluent (if one is poor, the other is wealthy), occupied with interesting jobs or aspirations, barely concealing beautiful inner lives just waiting to be shared, good-hearted, charming, and physically attractive.  Even an average Joe who finds themself as the romantic lead will usually have an iconic speech in their back pocket.  And, as I hope I’ve managed to convey in earlier posts, fat characters are almost always positioned as a detracting trait, counter to a happily-ever-after image.  There’s usually some form of compensation, some element that seems to say, “Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but this fat person deserves a chance.”  This can be Albert and Eva’s extraordinary chemistry (which, to be fair, is a solid example of a romantic film lacking idealization if you want to argue against my thesis), Jack’s and Marty’s pure-heartedness, Angus’ exceptional integrity/athleticism/intellect, or even Danny’s near-supernatural ability to call in a favor (erotic cronyism: only in Chicago).  Before this series we even have Louis in True Stories, who finds a bride through a love spell.  However, we also have narratives like Hitch and The Tao of Steve, which don’t make exceptions for their fat characters through exceptional  character traits, and rather focus on the implementation of romantic strategies to explain why a fat/unattractive man could successfully woo a thin/attractive woman.  

The narratives of these films are based on some assumptions that are misguided at best.  First, we have the homogenization of attraction: it’s not possible that a fat character would be seen as attractive because there are objective, universal standards that are embedded deep in the hearts and minds of the other characters, and of course, the audience.  One of the reasons I started writing CPBS was, in addition to being fat myself, I’m attracted to other fat people, so I get very lost during scenes where it’s supposed to be hilariously icky that Jack Black is naked.  (On top of, you know, the alienation when reminded that the entertainment industry uses bodies like mine as visual shorthand for garbage.)  Second, both Hitch and The Tao of Steve rely on the regressive heteronormative positioning of man as active pursuer of passive trophy woman, who has the “real” power of being able to veto the relationship.  It needs to be said that the overlap of these assumptions function to completely cut fat women out of the picture.  The Tao of Steve goes so far as to have protagonist Dex (Donal Logue) declare that he doesn’t fuck fat women.  “I am a fat-ist, I admit it.  I’m the worst kind of fat-ist, I’m a fat fat-ist.” What a delightful character I resigned myself to spend another hour watching!  Considering how this statement occurs early in the film, I suppose it’s supposed to communicate the immaturity that Dex grows out of to win the love of Syd (Greer Goodman), who is coincidentally thin.  Yet, since no fat women exist in the film, there’s nobody on the receiving end of this statement, just the abstract phantom of an unfuckable fat woman.  Hitch doesn’t even acknowledge that fat women exist.  We often think of fat women existing in rom coms as the Less Attractive Best Friend; Casey (Julie Ann Emery) is thin and pretty, her apparent outsider status is due to being Southern (Hitch being of the subgenre of rom coms that take place in Manhattan).  Wealthy, beautiful Allegra (Amber Valletta), the object of Albert’s (Kevin James) affections, turns out to be clumsy and awkward, but these traits are only highlighted at the end of the film when she talks about them while sitting on her gigantic yacht.  Her transgressions from physical idealization are manifest on her body during the end credits wedding dance party sequence, once the “chase” is over.  The object of longing is characterized by physical restraint– thinness, gracefulness, aloofness– which is as true for the mandatorily thin women characters as it is for the fat male characters pursuing them.  As Dex says in The Tao of Steve: “we pursue that which retreats from us.”  For Dex and Albert, restraint is the foundation of their respective strategies for getting women interested in them.  Of course, both learn the art of seduction from thin, traditionally attractive men.  

In Hitch, stereotypical accountant Albert hires Hitch (Will Smith), the “date doctor,” to teach him how to get his heiress client Allegra to notice him.  Hitch’s philosophy of falling in love comes from a painful experience he had in college of his first girlfriend (Robinne Lee) leaving him because he came on too strong, a heartbreak that was apparently potent enough to transform Charmingly Dorky Will Smith into Charmingly Suave Will Smith.  His philosophy does not include outright lying– he tells us in the opening narration that women want to see “the real you”– but he does say that “with no guile and no game, there’s no girl.”  He isn’t above manipulating situations, creating meetcutes for his clients.  Hitch teaches Albert how to dress and groom himself, but more importantly, how to rein in his dorkiness, which largely manifests as flailing physical comedy bits.  Albert is confident that his flamboyant dance moves will impress Allegra, but Hitch orders him to keep it to a dull two-step.  Albert can’t maintain control during their date, however, and busts out his ridiculous moves when Allegra isn’t looking at him, his physical tendency towards excess irresistable, even leading him to cheat on his regimen of increased regulation.  Hitch too ends up having to deal with his own body betraying him in appropriate ways when on dates with Sara, as he ends up accidentally knocking her into the Hudson River and having an allergic reaction that causes his face to swell up.  While mirroring his fat client’s awkwardness, Hitch also mirrors his emotional sincerity, as he struggles with wanting to get more involved with Sara than is his usual comfort level.

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“Don’t ever do that again:” Hitch (Will Smith) offers Albert (Kevin James) constructive criticism on his dance moves

If the audience wasn’t already socially conditioned to view fat people as unworthy of love or desire, the opening sequence of The Tao of Steve makes this explicit, as three women Dex went to college with view his body with amused disgust and confess to each other that they all had sex with him back in the day.  Albert may be above average in optimism thinking he can win the heart of a millionaire, but Dex is damn near a curiosity.  Step up ladies and gents, marvel at the fat man who gets laid on a regular basis!  How does he do it?  Witty, intellectual Dex has hewn his seduction strategy from observing “the prototypical cool American male” in pop culture, specifically Steve McGarrett, Steve Austin, and Steve McQueen. “He never, ever tries to impress women but he always gets the girl.”  The Tao of Steve is Dex’s name for his three-part strategy for getting women to have sex with him: “eliminate your desire… be excellent in her presence.., retreat.” While Dex’s strategy appears to be based on respecting boundaries (wow), sharing interests (amazing), and socializing with women without any expectations of sex (gold star), his reasoning is pretty damn misogynist.  Dex says that, based on his looks, “technically [he] shouldn’t be getting laid” and thus women are confused and intrigued by his apparent lack of sexual interest in them, which causes them to assume that sleeping with him is a major achievement on their part, wherein reality he describes himself as being willing to have sex with any woman who has low enough standards (as long as she isn’t fat).  He justifies the Tao not working on Syd because she’s smarter than the women he usually is able to seduce.  However, the sex that he has is also largely meaningless as he doesn’t desire a connection beyond temporary pleasure with his sexual partners.  

Although initially acting under the belief that behaving in a stereotypically masculine way will attract the women they’re in love with, both Albert and Dex have to abandon this facade and be more sensitive and vulnerable to actually win Allegra’s and Syd’s hearts.  These traits are often associated with fat men as a way of showing their lack of masculinity, but here we have two very straight rom-coms where romancing a woman is successfully done by letting go of machismo.  In Hitch, Albert is contrasted with the thin male characters as the genuinely nice guy.  Hitch isn’t bad person, but he’s a player, emotionally distant and commitment-phobic.  Allegra’s ex-boyfriend, the prince of Sweden or something like that, is referred to in negative terms.  We’re also introduced to Vance (Jeffrey “Burn Notice” Donovan), a potential client who wants Hitch to teach him seduction skills in order to dump a woman after a one night stand.  Hitch thinks Albert is a lost cause and is only persuaded to take on his case when Albert reveals the selfless nature of his love:  “You know what it’s like getting up every day, feeling hopeless?  Feeling like the love of your life is waking up with the wrong man, but at the same time hoping that she finds happiness, even if it’s never gonna be with you?”  And sure, Hitch helps Albert gain confidence and talk to Allegra in the first place, but his genuine attributes win out in the end.  As mentioned before, Allegra reveals that she is attracted to Albert’s awkward, dorky ways because she sees those traits in herself and he makes her feel comfortable.  

As for Dex, being an unattached lothario comes much more naturally to him, but he’s only able to win Syd’s affections once he stops verbally sparring with her and allows himself to be vulnerable.  Casual sex with many different partners is Dex’s MO, but he feels genuine remorse when Syd reveals that he seduced her in college and is hurt that he doesn’t remember her.  He directly uses his fat body as evidence that he won’t hurt her again:  “Now I’m a fat fucking pig, and the guy that did that to you was a skinny, arrogant prick. Just give me one more chance.”  The logic behind this statement isn’t teased out, but it suggests that becoming fat has taught Dex something about humility.  From his actions over the course of the film, it seems more like he looks for temporary solace from the insecurity he feels over the changes in his body by seeking casual sex and hasn’t actually changed, especially considering that he lies to his date in order to blow her off and have this conversation with Syd.  She doesn’t buy it; however, he does keep making attempts to be a better person in order to win her affections.  As a means of apologizing, he repairs a motorcycle for her.  Where he was initially depending on Syd to drive him to and from work, his gift frees her from her obligation to him.  (Dex is constantly referencing philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the film.  When Syd shows up at his home to thank him for the motorcycle, he’s reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, a book that serves as the modern world’s reintroduction to Gnosticism, an early sect of Christianity that contradicted the patriarchal structures of Roman Catholicism by having gender-equitable roles within their organization and recognizing the feminine personhood of God.  Filmmaking!)  His striving to change himself continues as he goes camping with Syd and some friends despite his lack of outdoorsmanship, makes an attempt at dieting, and breaks up with the married woman he’d been sleeping with (Ayelet Kaznelson).  Getting punched out by his former lover’s husband (John Hines) is enough, and he and Syd have their second first kiss.  Even during sex with her, he drops the playboy facade and shows vulnerability and tenderness.  Unfortunately, that takes the form of being insecure about his body, as he requests that they turn the lights off.  

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Dex (Donal Logue) and Syd (Greer Goodman) in The Tao of Steve:  Maybe you can’t stand him now, but just wait until the third act…

Both Hitch and The Tao of Steve find romance in a man changing himself to prove himself worthy of a woman:  Albert sheds his timidity, Dex his aloofness.  Their respective strategies even work at first:  Syd warms up to Dex when she sees him “be excellent” with his kindergarten students, Albert gets Allegra to notice him when he stands up to his patronizing boss on her behalf.  But the real connections don’t form until they rid themselves of the structured restrain they had been relying on as seduction methods; one might say that they let themselves go.   And even though Dex and Albert embody fat stereotypes (slovenly nerd and slovenly stoner, respectively) that are usually positioned as worthy of ridicule, the films want us to root for and empathize with them.  They are posited as diamonds in the rough, willing to polish themselves for the women they love, suggesting that they would do anything to make Syd and Allegra happy.  The idea that Albert and Dex as fat men can be seen as viable partners is initially explained by their employing of seduction strategies, “tricking” their respective partners into finding them attractive.  The romance doesn’t come from them being conventionally attractive as much as it does them being improved by the grace of loving these women who passively wait to be seduced.  As with the dynamic we see in Superbad and Knocked Up, the female characters serve as inspiration for the male characters to grow as people.  The escapist element is the idea of a partner who will facilitate your self-improvement (if you’re a dude), or who will change themselves to impress you (if you’re a lady).  It’s the internal version of a makeover or training montage done for the sake of impressing a partner, not the basis for a healthy relationship.  I said in a previous article that I want to see fat characters involved in escapist, whirlwind romances, but not if there isn’t a happy medium between the fantasy of a budding romance and tropes that aren’t bad ideas in the real world.

See Also:

Your Fat Friend: “She’s Not Even That Fat!” But I Am.

Roundup: June 2016

I didn’t watch as many films as I usually do this past month, as I’ve spent a lot of my leisure time, um, seeing if there are any fat characters in Skyrim.  But a few fat characters did crop up in the films I did see.  The films are from different countries and 40 years apart, but both characters are coincidentally minor antagonists:

Zero Motivation (2015, Tayla Lavie)

Think MASH meets Broad City.  A comedy focusing on two slacker soldiers Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) who work in an administrative office on an isolated Israeli Army base.  Their supervisor Rama (Shani Klein) is bigger-bodied than the other female soldiers; while her frustrations evoke some sympathy, she is positioned as the somewhat-incompetent minor bureaucrat unsuccessfully trying to suck the fun out of the protagonists’ lives.

Yojimbo (1961, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

This classic about a clever samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) who manipulates two warring gangs features some truly bizarre characters, including a fat, dim-witted gang lieutenant (read: syncophant) named Inokichi (Daisuke Kato), “The Wild Pig.”

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May 2016 Roundup

A monthly rundown of the fat characters in films I saw this past month, but haven’t written articles about.

The Conjuring (2013, dir. James Wan)

Based on a true story, a family seeks the help of America’s foremost ghost-hunting couple when they discover their house is– spoiler alert– haunted.  One of the ghosts is a little boy who befriends the youngest daughter in the family, it is discovered that his mother was possessed by an evil presence and murdered him. Clairvoyant Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) has a vision of the boy’s mother, a fat woman, holding his corpse.

Inside Man (2006, dir. Spike Lee)

This intricate and engaging police procedural/bank heist/hostage situation movie has the enormous, diverse cast befitting a story that takes place in NYC.  My eye was caught by  Ashlie Atkinson, a fat character actress I like, as Mobile Command Officer Berk.  She was smart and professional, and fit in well with the rest of her team.

Best in Show (2000, dir. Christopher Guest)

One of my all-time favorite comedies.  Everyone in the cast is an idiot in their own special way, among them Harlan’s friend (Will Sasso), who can’t seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Harlan (Christopher Guest) and his bloodhound Hubert aren’t doing any fishing at the dog show.

The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

This classic film looks at the range of human reactions when faced with the prospect of our own mortality, especially in times of crisis like the Black Plague.  Most famous, of course, is the knight Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) to buy himself some time.  A scene in an inn features a fat merchant (Benkt-Åke Benktsson) sitting with some friends, who conclude that the best way to confront the idea that they’re living in the end times is to “eat, drink, and be merry.”

 

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women after Marty: Only the Lonely (1991, dir. Chris Columbus); I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With (2007, dir. Jeff Garlin)

The impulse to revisit old stories is a strong one that long pre-dates the advent of film, but it’s not hugely controversial to say that many movie remakes and adaptations usually pale in comparison to the original.  Sometimes a change in setting and/or time can be a welcome take– A Fistful of Dollars is considered a classic right along with Yojimbo, for instance– but often, the remake speaks to the continued relevance of the original, whether intentionally or not.  Both Only the Lonely and I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With are heavily inspired by Marty, focusing on the emotional lives of fat bachelors in their thirties who live with their mothers.  Marty is widely regarded as, to use the words of I Want Someone…’s protagonist James, “a perfect movie,” so it’s not surprising that these films that pay homage to it don’t reach its artistic heights.  However, both are interesting when seen in conversation with Marty, as they respectively take their inspirational concepts to more romanticized and more cynical places.

I was looking forward to, and then disappointed by, Only the Lonely.  Its character motivations and development are simplistic, especially relative to the scale of the action.  Marty may seem overly modest with its timeline of one weekend in which two people meet and decide whether or not to see each other again, but the tight focus on the characters’ inner lives is a much more potent draw than Danny (John Candy) and Theresa’s (Ally Sheedy) courtship where their second date is on Halloween and their wedding scheduled for Christmastime.  Only the Lonely is also less equitable in sympathy for its characters, focusing more on getting the audience to root for Danny than build any potential complexity into the situation. Marty’s mother experiences anxiety triggered by her niece and nephew wanting her widowed sister to move out of their home to make way for a new baby.  Motivated by fear of abandonment, she criticizes Marty for wanting to date Clara, but in prior scenes, she is portrayed as a kind woman who wants her son to be happy.  Compare this to Rose Muldoon (Maureen O’Hara) in Only the Lonely, who is similarly afraid of abandonment, but is depicted more as an obstacle to Danny’s happiness than a grounded, relatable person.  Rose has a long history of not only “telling it like it is” (i.e. making insensitive remarks to whomever she pleases, including critical remarks about people’s ethnicities), but uses guilt to manipulate Danny to the point where the audience sees his vivid, anxious imaginings of her dying horribly because he wasn’t there to protect her.  Her fear of abandonment is not without grounds, as Danny’s brother Patrick (Kevin Dunn) is unwilling to let her move into his home in the suburbs, but she also has the potential for companionship from her neighbor Nick (Anthony Quinn), who is in love with her (and whom she initially rejects for being Greek).  Instead of Rose being frightened by the plight of another widow, Danny is spurred into seizing the day by an elderly bachelor friend (Milo O’Shea) who implores him not to end up the same way.

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Danny and Theresa on their first date, a picnic at Comiskey Park.  Even though the filming location for Danny and Rose’s house is a 5 minute walk to Wrigley Field.  Pick a damn side, executive producer John Hughes.

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With also has a wider scope than its predecessor, in that the focus is on James’ (Jeff Garlin) career troubles as well as his desire for love. Marty tells Clara about his dream of buying the butcher shop where he works, but we don’t see it plague him to the extent that frustration with acting does James.  Acting shares a significant similarity with relationships:  both pursuits require making oneself vulnerable to judgment and rejection, as both require the approval of other people to happen.  James finds that his fatness explicitly affects his success at both.  He books a job on a mean-spirited candid camera-style show; when he expresses doubts about the show’s ethics, the director (Paul Mazursky) encourages him by saying that he’s “got the whole fat guy thing wrapped up.”  Later, James is shocked to discover that not only is a remake of Marty being cast, but that he was passed over to audition for the title role, which he’s confident he would be great for.  His bewilderment is only exacerbated as seemingly nobody he talks is familiar with Marty, which he describes as “a perfect movie.”  He storms the auditions, where a group of conventionally beautiful women are waiting to read for the role of Clara, and discovers that the titular role has been given to Aaron Carter, and Gina Gershon will be playing Marty’s mother.  “Marty’s mom is hot?” James asks in disbelief.  “She is now,” the casting director (Roger Bart) replies.  James’ skill or lack thereof is a moot point, as he is disqualified from substantial roles due to his age and appearance.  Although James’ story includes more comedy than Marty’s, it’s fairly obvious that Garlin is also creating this film from a very personal perspective.  

As with Marty, Only the Lonely and I Want Someone… feature protagonists who live with their mothers.  Both films also suggest that their protagonist are fat and reluctant to move on to a more independent lifestyle at least partly due to these overly close relationships with mothers who provide food.  James’ mother (Mina Kolb) cooks food that he can’t seem to resist, including a scene where he tries to leave the dinner table due to frustration with her nagging, yet doesn’t because he’s still hungry.  James admits that he lives with his mother because it’s “comfortable,” but also because he worries for her safety.  His mom, however, isn’t as stagnating a force in his life as she appears at first glance:  she encourages him to crash the audition for Marty, and when he tells her that he wants to move out, she expresses relief.  In the denouement sequence where James is getting his shit together, he mentions that not only is he living alone now, but he sees his mother infrequently, suggesting that they are both happier with independent lives.  As mentioned above, in Only the Lonely, Rose smothers Danny to a hyperbolic degree.  In the opening scene, she picks on him for eating yogurt for breakfast instead of his usual Danish, saying he’s “anorexic” and that yogurt is “sissy” when he tells her that he’s “trying to cut back.”  Paradoxically, by encouraging him to maintain a masculinized attitude towards food (ie. prioritizing taste over health concerns), she emasculates him by passively controlling his choices.  His later inability to cook dinner for Theresa shows that he relies on Rose to cook for him.

As much as living with his mother at 38 suggests that Danny retains a childlike dependence on Rose, any immaturity is tempered by virtue. He fails at making dinner for Theresa and is a low-ranking police officer, but later in the film he talks about becoming a cop and living with his mother as choices he made in the wake of his father’s death to take care of his family, re-casting a seemingly pathetic life as the result of selflessness.  His size becomes a symbol of his ability to protect Theresa, as shown in a scene where he helps her sneak out of the house by using his larger body to hide her from Rose’s view.  It’s played for laughs, but speaks to the way in which Only the Lonely gives Candy’s fat body romantic potential.  Protection is what Theresa wants from a romantic partner:  someone who “will always stand up for [her], who will never let [her] down.” Their size disparity is also gendered, as his largeness also calls attention to how petite she is, how appropriate her physique is for a female love interest. When Rose meets Theresa, she criticizes her for being too thin (the Hollywood screenplay equivalent of saying that perfectionism is your biggest flaw during a job interview).  Even his seemingly humble job has perks, as he has connections all over the city that allow him to, among other things: picnic on the field at Comiskey Park, commandeer a fire truck on short notice in the middle of the night, and get an Amtrak train to make an unscheduled stop.  His ability to be a provider proves nothing short of magical in his quest to win Theresa’s heart.   

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James’ meetcute with Beth, in which she gives him a free ice cream sundae.

In I Want Someone…, James’ fatness is suggested to influence every change in his love life over the course of the narrative.  A woman he is dating breaks up with him at the beginning of the film, in part because he’s “in terrible shape,” although she then denies that it has anything to do with him being fat.  Later, he goes on a date with Beth (Sarah Silverman), a manic pixie dream girl who works at an ice cream parlor. He can’t quite believe he’s on a date with her, as he explains, because she’s a “hottie” and he’s “Baron von Fat.”  She responds by assuring him he’s not fat.  A more thoughtful response from her might have been to reassure him of her interest– James is told a few times throughout the movie that he isn’t fat, which comes across as obvious bullshit given the influence his size has on the narrative.  After they sleep together, she reveals that she had never been with a fat man before and she wanted to experiment, before telling him that she doesn’t want to see him again.  James’ fatness is something that his potential romantic partners must treat as an exception, whether positively or negatively, usually the latter.  The positive interaction is with Stella (Bonnie Hunt), who he meets in the jazz section of a record store.  He feels confident flirting with her after her coworker (Amy Sedaris– this cast, right?) lets it slip that she’s a “chubby chaser.”  Although flustered and full of denial when he asks her about it, the James-getting-his-shit-together sequence includes her at a performance of his, watching him with admiration.  Their romantic potential is ambiguous, but their rapport is undeniable, having mutual interests and easily joking around with each other.  Compare this to Danny: he hasn’t dated in a while before Theresa, but his fatness is never explicitly mentioned as an influencing factor.  Even after he proposes to Theresa, his brother suggests that he could do better than someone as “plain” as her; Danny must convince his family (regarding his brother, by “convince” I mean “punch so hard he flies halfway across the room”) that she is worthy of his love.  As with Marty, there is pressure to not commit to a “dog,” but if Danny has had any similar experiences to Marty or James striking out with a woman because of their appearance, it’s glossed over by the film.  Theresa’s “baggage” is shown in a charming light.  She is extremely introverted, which both makes her seem like someone in need of a big protector, and also feels like an echo of Sheedy’s most famous role as Allison in The Breakfast Club.  (Consider that at this point in her career, Sheedy was a few years post-Brat Pack; compare to Betsy Blair, who had been blacklisted by HUAC during the production of Marty).  Her job at her father’s funeral home is talked about as being a turn-off (Rose calls her a “ghoul”), but she is able to express her quirky, artistic side by doing the deceased’s makeup to make them resemble old movie stars, which is totally appropriate for a ritualized expression of grief.

There’s a fine balancing act that goes into portraying marginalized characters, as far as how to show them dealing with with social obstacles and how those experiences affect their internal worlds.  On one hand, we have James, who can only find some form of acceptance professionally or romantically when put into a box based on his fatness. Women are interested in him as a novelty or a fetish, and he is relegated to specific roles by his size and then denied them in preference of a younger, thinner actor.  On the other hand, we have Danny: his fatness is not ignored by the film, but just as far as it makes him a cuddly teddy-bear.  His extended bachelorhood is squarely blamed on his family dynamic, which feels like an unrealistic oversimplification.  Even unapologetic, confident fat people have to deal with haters, and that has an impact on how anyone navigates their professional and love lives.  On the other hand, lots of fat people are in happy relationships and/or have successful careers (including Garlin himself, who was making Curb Your Enthusiasm by the time he was the same age as James).  But even in real lives that are more complicated and nuanced; one take or the other can feel more resonant.  Sometimes we want the soft edges of a Hollywood rom-com, other times the gruffer indie comedy feels more appropriate.  So while I didn’t necessarily feel that these films are equal in terms of the amount of thought put into their creation (I mean Theresa tells Danny she’s trying to learn how to assert herself then she asserts herself when Rose insults her and then immediately BREAKS UP WITH DANNY BECAUSE SHE WAS ABLE TO DO THE THING SHE DIDN’T THINK SHE COULD DO AND HE DIDN’T DO IT FOR HER COME ON WHAT IS THAT okay I’m done now I promise), on a macro level, we need to have access to both points of view. Although dialing back the mom-hate just a notch would be nice.

Fat men and thin women and a few thoughts about The Lobster (2016, dir, Yorgos Lanthimos)

I’ve been looking forward to The Lobster for quite some time.  I haven’t seen Lanthimos’ breakthrough Dogtooth (I know, I know), but I am a sucker for an unusual premise, and “a hotel where people are transformed into animals if they don’t fall in love” is just that.  The initial buzz has been good, but what caught my eye was AV Club’s review* that lingered on the description of Colin Farrell’s “doughy” body.

The Lobster takes place in an absurd distopia that is childlike in its rigidity, directness, and simplistic logic. A law that requires adults to be in a romantic relationship drives the entire film, as newly-dumped David (Farrell) finds himself at a hotel where he has 45 days to make a love connection lest he be turned into an animal, or choose to live in the wilderness with the hermitic Loners.  It’s a darkly funny critique of the idealization of romantic relationships, the belief that everyone is capable and desiring of a lifelong, monogamous relationship free of complicating factors.  This is a world where bisexuality has been phased out, where the basis of a “good match” means sharing a common characteristic like frequent nosebleeds.  The film criticizes conventional wisdom about falling in love, and casting an actor known for roles in action films and his good looks as a middle-aged milquetoast with a potbelly– and including ample scenes of him in states of undress– is made part of the film’s subversive tone as much as the sterile mise en scene and alienating dialogue.  Weight is added to Farrell’s body with the intention of depriving the audience of a (conventionally) handsome romantic hero.  His friends at the hotel are similarly characterized by physical traits that are meant to detract from them being ideal mates: a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw).

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If having Farrell gain weight to play David is intended to suggest that the search for romance is bound to end eventually in disappointingly ordinariness, the visual language does not extend in the same way to his female costars.  Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia and Jessica Barden all play characters whose words and actions embody the awkward absurdity of the film’s world, but visually, they retain more of the physical idealized qualities.  And as members of the Loner group, Weisz and Seydoux spend most of their screen time swathed in plastic ponchos with “no” makeup and messy hair, but all of these women are conventionally attractive and thin, as compared to not only a heavier Farrell, but also actors like Reilly and Michael Smiley who, unlike Weisz and Seydoux, probably aren’t landing any modelling gigs.

Overall, The Lobster is great.  It strikes a marvelous balance between being accessible and surreal, entertaining and thought-provoking.  I’d much rather see a film of its caliber that doesn’t use the cultural baggage attached to fat bodies (and bodies with disabilities) as easy visual language to convey its thesis, but then again, it would be foolish of me to come out of seeing The Lobster with the expectation of having my dreams come true.

 

*I’ve used AV Club before for examples of how fat characters and actors are talked about in pop culture discourse, and just for the record, I don’t mean to pick on AV Club.  They just happen to be a website that I frequent for film reviews, news, etc.,they do a fine job on the whole, and I don’t find them to be particularly toxic.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women and Baggage: Enough Said (2013, dir. Nicole Holofcener); Jack Goes Boating (2010, dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Romantic plots in films often focus on idealized characters with few if any flaws (or flaws that are actually attractive, like an adorably clumsy woman or a widower who broods over his loss in an appealingly sensitive manner). And sure, considering that a film has a short amount of time in which to get the audience rooting for a character, getting us to the height of rapture when two characters kiss for the first time has to be a pretty hard sell. But this also means that the characters usually come from a very specific stock: conventionally attractive, young, uncomplicated lives and backstories. Two people who are set up to perfectly transition from attraction to love to a happy lifetime together. There’s little if any baggage: complicating factors that would detract from the audience’s confidence in a happy ending, such as characters being divorced, or lacking social skills. Considering how often fatness is a visible signifier of both age and an inability to have one’s life “together,” it’s not surprising that fat characters would come laden with traits or histories that would detract from them being ideal mates. Although seen less frequently in films, romantic films like Jack Goes Boating and Enough Said that involve a character who is fatter and older than the typical leading man tend to be infinitely more interesting and relatable; they carry more weight, so to speak. Jack Goes Boating, similar to Marty, follows a budding romance between perennially single Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who originated the role of Jack in the original play and also directs) and Connie (Amy Ryan); Enough Said is about skeptical divorcees Eva (Julia Louis Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini, in his final film performance).

Both Albert’s and Jack’s baggage includes a lack of finesse for adulting. Jack doesn’t know how to swim, and his cooking skills extend to what he can prepare on a hot plate. However, he acquires these skills as the film progresses to be worthy of Connie’s love, so he can rise to the tasks of holding a dinner party and taking her boating. These tasks, developing competence in food and exercise, are things that fat characters (not to mention fat people in real life) are expected to need and want. On the surface, his training is a pathway to him becoming a desirable mate, but more importantly, it speaks to an internal transformation. A big part of his education lies in visualization; he learns to see himself as someone who is a competent swimmer and cook as part of developing his confidence. And, as one would hope to see in a romantic film worth the price of admission, the development of Jack’s emotional life is paramount. Jack lacks the social skills and attainments one would expect from a man his age: not only is he single, he has never been in a serious relationship. His coworker and best friend Clyde (John Ortiz) and Clyde’s wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin Vega) are seemingly his sole connection to the outer world. Their apartment is the main domestic setting featured in the film, and we never see where Jack lives (although he mentions that he lives in his uncle’s basement). His sense of social propriety, as we often see with fat characters, is a bit off-kilter. He is shy and a man of few words, barely engaging when a beautiful Italian client tries to start a conversation with him. He is a fan of reggae music, the assumed reason that he sports some truly janky dreds in his fine, blonde hair. Preparing for his blind date with Connie, he comments to himself about needing to dress well: cut to him on the date in a button-down shirt and his omnipresent knit beanie as they eat Chinese takeout in Clyde and Lucy’s kitchen.

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A rough start:  John Ortiz, Amy Ryan, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating

As far as social skills, Albert is better-off than Jack. He’s been married, he has a good relationship with his daughter, he’s a witty conversationalist and actively pursues Eva. But the film uses this as a double-edged sword; unlike Jack, whose flaws are obscured by his taciturn nature, Albert’s flaws are magnified by his social baggage. Eva’s growing affection for Albert is complicated when she befriends his ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener), who is a walking inventory of his personal quirks. He describes himself as a slob, but Marianne harps to Eva on his slovenly habits, his inability to cook more than one dish and multiple failed diets, expressing disgust at his fatness. (“But he never got obese, right?” Eva asks, a note of desperation in her voice.) Although not as egregious as Jack, Albert does have his own antisocial quirks. He doesn’t have a nightstand, which Marianne (and then Eva) sees as a failure of obtaining adulthood; he wears sweatpants to an early date with Eva, which she finds inappropriate. Even his job, working as an archivist for a television museum, suggests the kind of drawbacks often associated with fat characters: sedentary tendencies, myopic geekiness (he can recall ancient television schedules from memory). His association with television in Eva’s mind, while part of an unusual profession at first, becomes a negative as Marianne’s caricature dehumanizes him in her mind: “I pictured the ex she was talking about as this fat, irritating slob and it turns out it’s Albert! Fat Albert! …A cartoon!”

Both films depict romance as developing slowly and with some ambivalence; after all, Connie and Eva have baggage of their own. Connie is as awkward and shy as Jack; on their first date, she tells a lengthy story about her father’s declining health and death that leaves Jack confused as how to respond. Although a middle aged woman, she is just starting out in her career making sales calls, a job that Lucy evidently pulled strings to get for her. A man assaults her on the subway, leaving her with both physical and emotional wounds. She’s later sexually harassed by her boss. There’s also the suggestion that she hasn’t had much experience of being cared for as an adult, as Jack is emboldened to learn how to prepare a meal when she tells him that nobody’s ever cooked for her before. While she likes Jack, her experiences make trusting him a difficult task. He patiently gives her her space; during scenes where they are intimate, Connie sets clear boundaries that he respects. They talk about what they each want in a partner, both have modest goals. Jack wants someone who is positive and likes music, and won’t sleep with other men. Connie wants someone with “a sense he can tell me the truth, a sense of humor, has a job, patient, like you, sexy…” “I can be some of those things,” Jack responds. Perhaps because he is an unconventional romantic lead, there is no expectation for a conventionally dramatized sex scene (e.g. no dialogue, propped against a wall), or hyperbolic dialogue about the profundity of their love. The world of the film gives space for something more messy and human, where ordinary people have to negotiate trauma and inexperience, and find happiness in other flawed people.

Both divorcees, Albert and Eva are understandably cautious about developing a serious relationship. Eva, it’s worth noting, expresses reluctance to give him her phone number because “he’s kind of fat… he’s got this big belly.” After their first date, she bashfully admits attraction to him: “I wasn’t attracted to him at first because he’s not handsome in the typical way, but now I find him kind of sexy.” She later says that their “shared middle agedness” is sexy to her; while she has her reservations, partly because of his appearance and partly due to her own baggage, she is ultimately attracted to Albert as a fat, older man. Although she is able to move past the cultural imperative to be attracted to someone youthful and thin, this is in part because of her ability to relate to the phase of life he’s in. They both have daughters going off to college. Eva’s hesitance seemingly comes from the dangers of being able to relate to Albert. Her fascinated discomfort with Marianne’s rants about her ex-husband put Eva on the offense to “fix” potential problems in her future relationship with him. Eva starts to harp on Albert for a few different Marianne-highlighted personal quirks; unsurprisingly, food is one of them. She criticizes his eating habits in front of her friends and tells him, to his justified embarrassment, that she’s going to “buy him a calorie book.” While completely uncalled-for behavior, it does tie in to her own insecurities about her eating habits, as her ex-husband had a habit of bringing home foods that she was trying to avoid but couldn’t when they were still living together. Eva tries to use Marianne as “a human TripAdvisor” to decide if a relationship with Albert is worth the emotional risk; however, she does this at the expense of owning and taking responsibility for her own shortcomings. She jeopardizes her ability for Albert to trust her and exploits Marianne’s trust, hiding the truth from both of them. A subplot reflects her desire to avoid emotionally turbulent situations, where Eva starts hanging out with her daughter Ellen’s (Tracey Fairaway) best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Eva begins to neglect Ellen because she is having trouble dealing with the impending loss of her child to a college on the other side of the country. By treating Chloe as a surrogate daughter, Eva can willfully ignore the wedge of distance and maturity being forced between her and her actual daughter, just as she tries to use Marianne’s complaints to ward off disappointment with Albert.

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Enough Said: James Gandolfini, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and more chemistry than an entire season of Breaking Bad

Another detraction from an idealized relationship in both films is the juxtaposition of the budding romances with their friends’ unhappy marriages. Both relationship foils– Clyde and Lucy in Jack Goes Boating, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Colette) and Will (Ben Falcone) in Enough Said— feature thinner male characters, but neither couple is particularly happy. In addition to swimming and cooking, Jack learns harsh realities about relationships, as Clyde and Lucy reveal that there have been multiple infidelities over the course of their marriage, casting a shadow of concern over his potential future with Connie. Sarah and Will are more of a comedic foil than dramatic, but they still constantly bicker; adding in Marianne and Eva’s ex Peter (Toby Huss), romantic relationships in Enough Said seem to have a cyclical nature that create complicated family networks of currents and exes, whereas Jack Goes Boating is more linear and binary, split into the lonely single and the dissatisfied married.

The marked division between the two films is their ideas about if and how people change. Jack Goes Boating takes a more romantic approach: Jack dedicates himself to self-improvement once he meets Connie, but also learns that the reason she loves him is because he strives to be someone who can make her wishes come true. After the dinner he cooks her is accidentally ruined, she calms his shame by telling him how what she appreciates is that he cooked for her, even if they weren’t able to eat the meal. This message is explicit in the last lines of the movie: “I knew you’d be good,” Connie tells Jack admiringly. “I am for you,” he responds. On the other hand, Enough Said finds its resolution in the acceptance of flaws. Albert breaks up with Eva after discovering she’s allowed Marianne to “poison” their relationship. Despite hearing over and over about the worst version of him, she drives by his house often, finding that she misses him. When he sees her parked across the street from his home one day, it leads to the first interaction since their breakup, where they admit that they’ve missed each other. He tells her that he bought a nightstand (something she had been bothered about); she is surprised, but when he admits that he was just teasing her, she laughs, glowing as she looks at him. Eva, the thin, seemingly more “together” adult, is the one who has to change for the relationship to work, letting go of Marianne’s seemingly wise perspective about his shortcomings and solely focusing on her affection for his deadpan sense of humor and gratitude that he still has feelings for her.

Neither film ends with a grand pronouncement of love, or any other epic resolution. These characters aren’t timeless testaments to the power of love: they are charming but quotidian, flawed and wounded, but in ways that make them relatable. While I am looking forward to the day where I go to the movies and see a fat character swept up in a fairytale romance, seeing one in a more grounded, realistic film like Enough Said or Jack Goes Boating has more significance for me. My favorite films are the ones where I can relate to the characters, where the situations they confront feel true to my own experiences; in part, this is why I wish I saw more characters with physiques like my own. When a romantic story includes the anxiety of a failed date or the ambivalence of seeing a lover’s unattractive quirks, the honesty of those situations– the baggage that can be more believably ascribed to characters who aren’t young or normatively attractive– draws me in more fully than any scenario Nicholas Sparks could think up. If there is an upside to having a physicality that is denied idealization, I think that’s probably it.

See Also:

Vulture:  The Toughest Scene I Wrote: Enough Said‘s Ending

April 2016 Roundup

I’ve had a busy week, but better late than never!  Here’s a summary of fat characters in films I saw over the past month but didn’t write about.

The Lady Eve (1941, dir. Preston Sturges)

Classic screwball romantic comedy in which con artist Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) tries to swindle wealthy nerd Charles (Henry Fonda) and loses her heart in the process.  Two father figures in the movie are fat men: the Colonel (Charles Coburn), Jean’s partner in crime who pretends to be her father, is debonair yet heartless;  Horace (Eugene Palette), Charles’ tycoon father, is a blustering blue-collar type who made a fortune by brewing the Ale that Won for Yale.

Midnight Special (2016, dir. Jeff Nichols)

In this moody sci-fi drama about a Kid with Powers, there’s a small role of a child psychologist (Dana Gourrier) who is a competent, serious professional who does her job in an intense, high-security military setting and just happens to be fat.  And that’s it.  Which is fine by me.

Faces (1968, dir. John Cassavetes)

Dang, this is a good movie.  A cinema verite look at a crumbling marriage over the course of a night, as Richard (John Marley) spends the night with Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) a sex worker he frequently patronizes, while his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) picks up Chet (Seymour Cassel) a playboy she and her friends meet at a club.  Although all the characters in the film are portrayed as lonely people desperate for some way to remedy the emptiness of their lives, a few fat minor characters come across as particularly pathetic.  Maria’s friend Florence (Dorothy Gulliver) practically begs Chet to pay attention to her, while two of Jeannie’s other clients (Fred Draper and Val Avery) become angry to the point of aggression when threatened by Richard’s presence in Jeannie’s home.

Ma Vie en Rose (1997, dir. Alain Berliner)

This is a sweet film about Ludo (Georges du Fresne), a transgender 7 year old who wants to be accepted as a girl.  Unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done, as her family and community react to her love of dresses and dolls with confusion and disapproval.  The repercussions of transphobia on her family as a whole largely come from Albert (Daniel Hanssens), a fat man who is Ludo’s father’s boss. He is rather conservative, and is scandalized when Ludo holds a play-wedding wherein she “marries” his son Jerome (Julien Riviere), putting her father’s job in jeopardy.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women in Judd Apatow Productions (Superbad, 2007, dir. Greg Mottola; Knocked Up, 2007, dir. Judd Apatow)

(CN: rape culture) As Superbad and Knocked Up are both Judd Apatow productions, they share many key elements:  not only cast and crew, among them Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Bill Hader, but also a focus on young men who are reluctant to move on to the next phase of their lives, and how this reluctance affects both existing relationships and the ability to forge new ones.  Both films find our fat protagonists in situations demanding maturity, whether or not they are ready; both try to prepare through performing heterosexuality.  In Superbad, Seth (Jonah Hill) and his attached-at-the-hip best friend Evan (Michael Cera) are graduating high school and going to different colleges.  Instead of facing his feelings of loss, Seth focuses on getting Jules (Emma Stone) to date him for the summer so that he can practice having sex and start college as “the Iron Chef of pounding vag.”  In Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) has a one night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl) that results in an unintended pregnancy; he tries to do the “right thing” by rushing into a relationship with her.  And it comes as no surprise that both women are portrayed as out of the protagonists’ “league.” Thinness is a major indicator of this quality that Jules and Alison both possess, that could be seen as “having it together:” they display self-control, competence, intelligence, and maturity, whereas Ben and Seth are characterized in a contrasting manner. 

[Something to bear in mind if you haven’t seen Superbad and your interest has been piqued: this is a movie that is very much located within rape culture. Its theme and story subvert expectations of teen sex comedies, but there is no getting around that for a lot of the film, the protagonists are planning to have sex with women who are too drunk to consent.  Even though their plan is hatched from ignorant naivete rather than, say, a pickup artist handbook, it does expose a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies that can be uncomfortable to watch.  Although rape culture isn’t the topic of this article, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the film’s problematic aspects.]

Superbad is set in a high school community, thus character dynamics and situations are exposed largely through high school students gossiping and talking shit.  We get an idea of what the object of Seth’s affection is like before we even see her through Evan’s needling:  “Jules got incredibly hot over last summer and obviously doesn’t realize it because she’s still talking with you and flirting with you.”  Seth responds by running through a list of her former boyfriends who are more worthy than him, constructing her “league” of guys who are exceedingly athletic, handsome, and “the sweetest guy ever.”  We also see where our protagonists rank socially by a scene of Seth performing poorly in gym class and the number of times he is called a “pussy.”  Seth is both unpopular and disorderly, willfully ignoring school rules and bubbling over with sexual impulse. The guys have an innate sense that these traits need to be suppressed in order to be attractive.  An early scene finds Evan giving a heavily doctored account of his weekend exploits with Seth and Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to Becca (Martha MacIsaac), the girl he likes.  As he speaks with forced maturity and nonchalance, the scene is cross-cut with flashbacks to the guys watching porn, drunkenly crashing his parents’ party, and puking in an alley after getting denied entrance to a strip club.  Jules, in contrast to Seth, is portrayed as more “together.”  She projects cool in every scene she’s in, through a balance of ease and self-control:  she’s a girl who laughs at dick jokes and can successfully throw a large party on short notice, generously providing alcohol for her guests even though she herself does not drink.  

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Seth and Jules have chemistry.  Actually, they have home ec!  Just making a little joke. I like to keep it light in the captions.

Although Seth has a history of awkwardly flirtatious encounters with Jules, he is convinced that the only way he can have sex with her is if her judgment is impaired through alcohol.  Seth convinces Evan that he too can score with Becca if she’s drunk.  “You know when you hear girls saying, ‘I was so shitfaced last night, I shouldn’t have fucked that guy”? We can be that mistake!”  Seth believes that if he (and, by extension, Evan) is going to have sex with someone, it’s due to poor decision-making rather than desire. This mindset motivates their extraordinary attempts to buy alcohol and get to Jules’ party.  Seth even discourages Evan from telling Becca how he feels about her instead of plying her affections with alcohol.  

Seth’s plan is incredibly unethical, though the film portrays it as a misbegotten product of his insecurity and selfishness.  The turning point for Seth is when he is forced to drop his scheming and finally allows himself to be vulnerable, allowing his unruliness to dissolve his prickly defensiveness instead of being used to transgress order to get what he wants.  We see him starting to let go at Jules’ party, telling the embarrassing stories of his adventures thus far to a group of peers, as Jules watches him from afar, smiling.  They go off alone, and he discovers that his plan is subverted by her “togetherness:”  not only does she not drink, she sets appropriate boundaries by saying she doesn’t want to make out with him when he is drunk.  He walks off, unable to handle his frustration and embarrassment.  Later, Jules finds him crying.  He tells her how disappointed he is that he blew his last chance “to make [her his] girlfriend for the summer,” and that he had been banking on her being drunk.  “You’d never get with me if you were sober.  Look at you!  Look at me!”

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In her essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness,”  Neda Ulaby makes the following observation about why Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had so many ardent female fans at the height of his celebrity:  “[he] projected a desire to be viewed with longing, illustrating that the capacity to attract and hold such a look is as frequently a gender-neutral source of power as a gendered target of male exploitation” (Braziel and LaBesco 160).  I must admit a personal bias– I think Jonah Hill is a cutiepie– but no matter how much I try to stay mindful of Seth’s creepy attitude towards making Jules his conquest earlier in the movie, the sincerity and vulnerability of his sense of loss melts my heart every time I watch this scene.  It’s also effective on Jules, apparently, as the film ends with her inviting him to hang out at the mall the next day.

Knocked Up begins in a similar vein, with unruly man-child Ben and “together,” out of his “league” Alison hooking up after a night of drinking at a club.  The opening scenes illustrate who the characters are and how much their lives differ, with Ben and his friends goofing off and smoking pot in their mess of a house, while Alison wakes up early, takes her nieces to school, and holds it down at her glamorous job.  They are physically dissimilar as well; Alison works for the image-obsessed E! Network, and isn’t told to lose weight when she gets a promotion to be on-camera (they legally can’t do that), but is strongly encouraged to “tighten.”  Ben, on the other hand, is comfortably unkempt and chubby.  They cross paths at a nightclub when Alison is celebrating her promotion and Ben gets her a drink; “I rarely look this cool,” he admits.  Although there is nothing to suggest that either is planning to get the other drunk in order to get laid, their encounter is characterized by poor judgment, namely a miscommunication about a condom that results in pregnancy.  The next morning finds Alison looking with disgust at a naked Ben asleep in her bed; he is the “mistake” that Seth and Evan aspire to be in Superbad.  

This is probably a good opportunity to bring up a challenge that I face writing about the topic of fat characters in romantic/sexual situations:  I’m attracted to other fat people.  I don’t come at these movies from the assumed point of view that the fat characters are unpleasant to look at.  I can parse from Katherine Heigl’s acting, the camera angles, timing, etc. that naked Seth Rogen in one’s bed is unappealing and therefore funny, but that’s not a point of view to which I can relate to at all.  Knocked Up can be rightly criticized for being a story about an idealized woman and an underachieving guy falling in love, when the gender-swapped version of that story would never see the light of day, but this argument can be convincingly made based on the characters actions and lives.  From what I remember of publicized versions of this argument when Knocked Up came out, it often boiled down to their physical characteristics, which assumes that attraction is universal and objective, alienating not only fat people from this discourse, but people who desire fat people.  This idea even appears in discussions of size diversity: the AV Club published an article yesterday about body shaming in Hollywood, where one of the writers mentions “Seth Rogen and basically all of his romantic interests” as an example of “men paired with female co-stars who are objectively more attractive.”

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“Hooray!  Oh, wait, I mean… Gross? … um…?”

I hadn’t seen Knocked Up in several years; everything I remembered about its main conflict arose from Ben’s immaturity and lack of responsibility (e.g. not reading the baby books).  However, the second watch revealed a more nuanced relationship than Manchild Loves Overachiever.  Alison herself is emotionally mature and willing to give Ben a chance, but her emotionally stunted, thin family doesn’t contribute to that at all.  Alison’s polished mother (Joanna Kerns) frostily pressures her to get an abortion, threatening that her daughter’s job won’t like when pregnancy makes her fat.  The next scene shows Ben’s stoner dad calming his son’s fears with amused patience.  (These scenes are imbalanced, in my opinion, and it’s all Harold Ramis’ fault.  He is in the movie for maybe 4 minutes total, and he knocks it out of the park.  I think I got more choked up over his loss watching this scene than when I heard the news of his death.)  Moreover, Alison’s unhappily married sister and brother-in-law, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), are a symbol of impending doom.  Pete is so checked out of his life that he appears to be an animatronic Paul Rudd puppet, while Debbie is shallow and controlling, a near-constant voice of doubt in Alison’s ear.  “He’s overweight,” she tells her sister, “when does that end? …imagine how much bigger he’s gonna get.  That means he has bad genes.  Your kid is gonna be overweight.”  “Shit,” Alison whispers.  Alison’s “mistake” puts her in proximity to fatness, both through the weight that she gains over the course of her pregnancy, and her decision to give a relationship with Ben an actual chance, despite walking out of breakfast with him the morning after their hookup.

Like Seth in Superbad, Ben is characterized by his lack of traditionally masculine charms (big muscles and/or a big paycheck), but becomes lovable by being vulnerable and emotionally open.  His ultimate proving ground when Alison goes into labor. He proves that he is open to change and has taken on some of Alison’s “togetherness,” but unlike the rest of her family, prioritizes her feelings and wants.  He takes care of Alison through the knowledge he’s acquired about the birthing process and taking care of her emotional needs by setting boundaries with her ruthless obstetrician (Ken Jeong) and Debbie, who is also won over by Ben telling her to stay in the waiting room.  Proving that he can be mature and nurturing, Alison realizes how much she loves him, and the film ends with a montage of the happy family.  

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Look at ‘im go, defying traditional standards of masculinity.

Ulaby’s observation about Fatty Arbuckle also applies to Ben, as he moves beyond the goofy guy who was lucky enough to have a one-night stand with a beautiful woman and becomes someone who is willing to be vulnerable and open to change out of longing for her to love him.  Both films end with the protagonists facing their scary, uncertain futures– Seth and Evan separate from each other, Ben becomes a father– motivated by the reciprocated love of women who are out of their “league.”  The fat protagonists of these films show a different masculinity than is often seen in film, men who are desirable to women through their longing and vulnerability.  Regarding the kind of women who are desirable to men, though: if the audience wants a depiction of women that doesn’t reside on top of the traditional pedestal of togetherness, we must look elsewhere.

Roundup: March 2016

A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.

Take This Waltz (2011, dir. Sarah Polley)

This romantic drama follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a writer who finds herself torn between her loving, stable marriage to chef Lou (Seth Rogen) and her prickly, burgeoning crush on their rickshaw-driving artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby).  I was hesitant to include this because Rogen is thinner in this film than most of his work (he made this film around the same time as Green Hornet), but I decided to go with it as the film juxtaposes him with Daniel, who is very athletic (literally spending his days running around Toronto).

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Orgazmo (1997, dir. Trey Parker)

A self-consciously B comedy that is a sendup of low-budget action films, the porn industry, and (of course) Mormons, Orgazmo pits kung fu fighting Latter Day Saint Joe (Parker) against evil porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs).  Maxxx is fat, as are some of his cronies/actors Jizzmaster Zero (Ron Jeremy) and his dimwitted bodyguard whose name I didn’t write down (mea culpa, unsung hero).  But another notable scene pairs Joe with a fat porn actress called T-Rex (Ruby Hart, credited on IMDB as “The Fat Lady Stripper”), and touches on a number of tropes:  the ground shakes when T-Rex approaches, she is masculinized (her lines are dubbed with Parker doing a voiceover), she is crass and sexually voracious, Joe is terrified of her, and the onlookers are disgusted, with the exception of weirdo Dave the Lighting Guy (Matt Stone).  The scene can be found here (NSFW; typical Parker/Stone humor).

The Ladykillers (2004, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

A remake of a  1955 heist film that pits a group of thieves against an elderly Christian woman (Irma P. Hall) who unknowingly rents a room in her house to their grandiloquent ringleader (Tom Hanks).  In true Coen fashion, the film is peppered with idiosyncratic fat characters: a sweaty, easily-bribed boss (Stephen Root); a security guard who is constantly laughing and surrounded by food wrappers (Walter K. Jordan); a deputy sheriff who frequently naps at his desk (John McConnell).

The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)

One of Pixar’s best, in a world… where superheroes are forced into hiding as normal people, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to ignore his and his family’s special abilities.  Having to live as insurance agent Bob Parr, he gains weight and is referred to as fat at least a few times, but is still able to fight well enough to defeat a massive killbot single-handed.  Once he has the opportunity to put his super-strength to use again, an exercise montage helps him get back his trimmer physique.

Meet the Fokkens/Ouwehoeren (2012, dir. Rob Schröder, Gabriëlle Provaas)

I usually don’t include fat people in documentaries that I see; in most cases, a subject being fat is happenstance.  That is the case here– a profile of Louise and Martine Fokken, Dutch twin sisters who were sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district for over 50 years, and just happen to be fat (although photos show that they were slimmer in their youth).  Although fatness isn’t explicitly discussed, they are contrasted with their slimmer, younger colleagues and laughed at by some passerby.  The idea of older, fatter women being sexually active, as well as objects of desire, is unthinkable to many people; making it the subject of a full-length documentary is a necessary subversion of assumptions about who sex workers are.

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