Does This Fat Suit Make My Heart Look Big?

Moribund Hollywood visits morbidly obese America.


When New Line Cinema advertised its Ryan Reynolds vehicle Just Friends as a fat suit comedy, then abruptly changed tack and touted it as a romantic tale of a thin man's innocence regained, the studio's about-face reflected more than just the two-things-to-all-people anti-genius of current movie marketing. It showed how America's increasingly schizoid relationship to body mass has forced an inflection point in fat suit cinema.

Maybe at some level New Line realized an essential truth about fat suit movies: Their plots don't matter–they're merely a symptom of obesity, like diabetes. That's because no matter what filmmakers intend, fat suits always take over the movies they're in. Just as stars, who are often all face, head, and hair, are de-faced (or un-faced) when they put on fat suits, so are movies de-plotted when the fat suit appears. The films fill up on empty calories, their padded running times physicalized by their fat-suited stars.

The modern fat suit movie literally burst on the screen in Monty Python's 1983 film The Meaning of Life, when Terry Jones' obscenely obese gourmand Mr. Creosote followed a one-man banquet with an after-dinner mint and exploded. The fat suit was born as a sign of the redundancy of post-scarcity excess; just the addition of a wafer-thin mint illustrated–in the most disgusting and graphic way–the exact point where super-tanker gluttons became fabulous foodies, their rib cages exposed like shipwrecks.

Since nothing could top that, the fat suit has subsequently become less a ham-gelatin stage preceding a heart attack than a larval or cocoon stage from which a butterfly emerges. Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers siliconed up to embody ethno-cultural demons from the celebrity id, but mainly they and others donned fat suits to make themselves lovable. When an army of personal trainers exists solely to help Julia Roberts work off last night's dessert, the fat suit provides a way for actors to show themselves doing the one thing they can't do: eating to excess, behaving the way they think their audience behaves. When Gwyneth Paltrow orders pizza burgers and chili fries in 2001's Shallow Hal, we witness the modern spectacle of a glamorous woman not being cut down to size but being brought up to it.

Once upon a time actors made news by endangering their health to gain weight for roles, like Robert De Niro did for Raging Bull. Their willingness to fatten up showed how different they were, how committed, in a world where everybody else wanted to slim down. Today we read instead about the weight actors lose. Philip Seymour Hoffman reduced to play Truman Capote. Does anyone remember anything about The Machinist except how Christian Bale lost a lot of weight (a dangerous amount, we were told) to play the lead? The exemplary sufferer has become the exemplary dieter.

Ren?Zellweger has made a career of publicly wringing her hands about her Bridget Jones bulk-ups, but the drama that commands attention is her ability to lose the pounds after the film wraps and she returns to being her bony awards-show self. Even these struggles are becoming pass?In an America torn between fast food litigator John Banzhaf and Obesity Myth author Paul Campos, the fat suit allows stars to split the difference.

Just Friends is a gender-reversed remake of America's Sweethearts, a comedy only four years old. In that dud, Julia Roberts played an ex-fatty looking for the love she deserved all along. This is a formula intrinsically appealing to Hollywood, even when it underfeeds the box office. Since Just Friends raises the question why anyone would want to remake a movie as bad as America's Sweethearts, it forces us to see fatness as a necessary stage in the development of the Hollywood ego. First comes fatness and rejection, then a period of thin but self-indulgent revenge on the people who laughed at the former fatness, lastly an understanding that true self-worth resides not in appearance but in the love reflected back at perfection–Hollywood's version of wholeness.

In an age where John Candy is but a memory, Martin Short's blubbery, epicene Jiminy Glick represents the future of the fat comic. Short isn't a fat comic but he plays one on TV. Primetime Glick is a phony show about phoniness; when Short goes home at night he leaves his outer fat man on a hook. The pathos of the thin man trying to get out has been decisively reversed.