[29 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Have you seen Jonah Hill recently? No? Well, go Google his name and look at some of the latest images of the Superbad and Get Him to the Greek star. See something unusual? Perhaps, even shocking? No? Well, obviously you have a need for some glasses - or something a bit stronger. You see, over the course of the last year, Hill has dropped a dramatic amount of weight (the total amount has, so far, managed to allude the tabloid tell-all of the media press) and he’s been showing off his svelte new look as part of the promotion for his recent movie, Moneyball. With the big screen adaptation of early Fox TV favorite 21 Jump Street in the works, many assumed the change was mandated by the leap into action/adventure mode.
In recent interviews, Hill has said all the right things: the decision came as a result worry over his health; he was too young to be so overweight; he sought out the help of a nutritionist and lost the pounds ‘the right way.’ He even addressed an obvious concern that many in his fanbase voiced - is his still funny? The response, a kind of measured “wha…???” tied to the notion that he’s an actor. Hill argued that, as a professional, he can be both humorous and dramatic without having to rely on body issues as a basis. For him, it’s never been about being the jolly fat guy. However, many outside the studio system (and those who have, for the most part, continued to type cast him), might disagree with that assessment.
Hill, like numerous names before him - Jackie Gleason, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley - has made a living off of being large. He’s taken the tired cliche of heft equaling hilarity and given it a new, post-millennial spin. Since our society is currently in a state of flux, desperate to drop the whole Ken and Barbie notion of beauty and yet constantly clamoring for more shots of stunted stick figures (and on the male side, gaudy muscled goombahs), Hill and his appearance seems ‘sensible.’ He’s big, but it’s never really a major issue in his movies. He’s not really required to trade on his girth to get a laugh…or sympathy. Instead, he seems precariously poised between nerd, nebbish, and nice guy most of the time.
Take his breakthrough role in Superbad. He’s viewed as a bit “chunky” and yet capable of gaming with the best of them. In Evan Almighty, he appeared dapper and dressy without resorting to plump boy pratfalls. In other comedies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Funny People, he’s just a person, not a plus size. About the only time his then immense facade was “featured” was as part of the wonderful Get Him to the Greek. Yet when given the opportunity to mock his weight, to work in gags that solely exist to get the chubster to chuck away his dignity, the filmmakers resisted. Unlike Belushi or Farley, who traded on slapstick to accentuate/alleviate the number of the scale, Hill gets to (mostly) play it straight.
But that avoids the obvious issue - do audiences respond to size as a substitute for actual jokes? Is it funny - or better yet, funnier - when someone like Hill goes on an drug induced rage in a Las Vegas hotel room as part of a premise, or would we find someone like Bradley Cooper or Chris Evans equally hilarious in the same situation? Indeed, take any of the roles he has essayed in the last few years and imagine someone else in the part. Now, say to yourself, are those sequences funnier with Hill as the genial oaf or would we crack up if someone more ‘average’ was cast. Indeed, what audiences may be responding to is not mass but unusualness. The very large, like the very tall or very small, become unexpected sideshows, and as a result, ripe for oversized (read: comic) situations and reactions.
All of this leads to an interesting predicament. In a few weeks, the ‘fat’ Jonah Hill will star in a surreal gross-out comedy entitled The Sitter. He will, as the title suggests, be playing a babysitter who finds himself with some incredibly snarky charges and a collection of deranged (and by the looks of the trailer, dangerous) situations to deal with. In the movie, he is the old Hill - chubby, childlike, churlish, and charming. But if you’ve seen any of the newer publicity for the film, you’ll discover the new Hill - oddly thin and a little unnerving because of it. Like the cliched truism regarding the “shadow of one’s former self,” seeing the skinny version of the actor introducing the elephantine version is strangely surreal.
Now, none of this is meant to be mean or offensive. None. Indeed, what’s interesting about this is the way in which future audiences will react to his new look. Since he’s yet to appear in a film where he looks like he does now (even in Moneyball, he’s the geek glutton type) and has at least one more coming to theaters from his obese days, the verdict on the new Hill will have to wait. Unlike actresses, who are constantly criticized for being “too” - too thin, too fat, too focused on their figure, too eager to let doctors and plastic surgery do what nature and willpower can or can’t anymore - actors are more readily accepted when they shapeshift. Matt Damon gained a few pounds to play a doughy Archer Daniels Midland exec in The Informant! and instead of being lambasted, he was praised. Similarly, Christian Bale almost killed himself losing weight to be in The Machinist. Again, more applause than anger.
Those situations were temporary, however. The Hill story - aside from the whole “funny/not funny” debate - is different because it’s supposedly permanent. Also, for how intrigued everyone is by it. It’s as if the entire Hollywood press corps believe he’s destroyed (or at the very least, badly redirected) his career and are just waiting for him to acknowledge same before pouncing. In the bright lights of the braindead media, change is never a good thing, that is, unless it means a former recovering addict is off the wagon again. If Hill ends up putting back on the weight he lost, the tattletales over at TMZ will relish the reveal. Yet it remains to be seen if he can weather such a physical transformation and still come out ahead…and still funny. There is no denying that Jonah Hill is talented. If our response was based on his belly size, however, he could have dieted himself into a dilemma.