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.
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.
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.