The “Fat” Joke

Ah, the shitstorm that commences when one cultural (crack)pot calls another a catty black. Or in this case, fat. About four decades ago, Rex Reed was hailed as a rising voice in film critique. He was seen as saucy and flamboyant, a combination of everyman and his sassy, spill the beans brother. Fast forward 40 years and he’s the punchline of many an aging, out of touch jibe, a constant source (along with Armond White) of ridicule among those who call themselves critics…as they blog about their beloved b-movies. True, his desire to play cinematic stand-up often collides with the requirements of the craft, but with the wealth of weak-willed, quote-whoring studio shills out there more than happy to mine the mainstream for as many page hits as possible, he’s no worse.

Of course, fans of Melissa McCarthy would beg to differ. The plus-sized actress, acclaimed for her work in television (an Emmy for the hit sitcom Mike and Molly) and film (an Oscar nod as the brutish Megan in Bridesmaids) just got her first ‘starring’ role in a big screen feature fabricated solely for her. As the devious Diana, fraudster extraordinaire, McCarthy trades on her physical attributes to make the life of mark Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) miserable. Opening at number one over the 8 February weekend, Identity Thief proved that audiences wanted to see their favorite full figured funny girl in a romp based, seemingly, around her heft. While characterization is stretched to the limits of believability, this film is basically a farce with frightening levels of gross out humor and sadistic slapstick. Oh, and fat jokes.

So what was Reed’s crime? What has the faithful frothing? Well, as part of his outright pan of the film, Reed resorted to that most awful of attributes – picking on the portly. Using terms like “tractor-sized” and “hippo,” he lashed out at McCarthy’s girth, taking her to task for everything except global warming and the Pope’s recent resignation announcement. In essence, Reed was arguing (badly, by the way), that the only reason the actress has a career is because of her human oddity status. He then goes on to suggest that her only legitimate acting attribute – and therefore, viable reason for derision – is her weight. Pointing out her size is one thing. Predicating your entire dismissal on the fact that McCarthy is not some amiable anorexic – and your displeasure with same – is indeed spurious. Naturally, fan clubs and dedicated web heads complained, giving too much credence to a curmudgeon whose import apparently came in went with his leading role in Myra Breckenridge.

Yet Reed’s contention, while callous and cruel, has the smallest smidgen of indirect truth to it. Fat is considered funny – at least, in film. Last year, we ourselves wondered if Jonah Hill would still be hilarious after a freakish weight loss that saw him shift several sizes for a role in 21 Jump Street. He was There have been similar debates over past comedians (Chris Farley, John Candy) who, sadly, died as a result of their obvious obesity. Yet like drag and phony accents, the overweight have always been tagged as a laugh riot. From the “jolly fat man” cliche to the notorious Mr. Arbuckle, size has mattered. Of course, when it comes to women, the double standard is daunting. Men can be old, obese, and offensive, and they are praised for their performance. Have a gaggle of gals involved in something sordid or sleazy, and suddenly it’s time to play prude – and point out their physical faults.

Even more telling, fellow critic Glenn Kenny made an equally invasive attack of Ms. McCarthy and her film, and yet few are screaming for his head. In his similarly dismissive review, he points out that the sole purpose of the film is to laugh at the lead’s largeness. “First,” Kenny points out, “You’re supposed to laugh at her, hatefully, because she’s fat and drunk and a sociopath criminal and con artist.” He then goes on to argue that the main comedy derives almost directly from her heft, arguing that, again “you’re supposed to laugh at her, but in a more get-your-freak-on way, because she’s fat and likes weird sex with other fatties!” Yes, Kenny also points out the other massive flaws in the creation of this non-character (which he refers to as “a random series of traits”), but the emphasis on Ms. McCarthy’s physicality is inherent and part of his approach.

Granted, he is making the case within the film himself. He is not stepping outside, like Reed, and taking the actress herself down. Kenny’s complaint is about how the movie treats Diane. How it reduces her to a frantic pachyderm with only the slightest hint of redemption at the end. More importantly, he’s not criticizing Ms. McCarthy for her size. Instead, he is condemning a film for making it a main feature. In Bridesmaids, the character of Megan was terrific because she was overweight…and damn proud of it. There is even a scene, toward the end, when she tells the main character about how hard it was for her in high school and how she overcame such struggles. Acknowledgement goes a long way toward taking the piss out of someone’s planned dismissal. Identity Thief never jumps this gun.

Perhaps it’s just a question of context. When Reed recklessly cuts to the chase, using slurs and sloppy analogies to make his equally over-generalized points, he’s vilified. It comes across as mean and petty. But he appears to be attacking Ms. McCarthy personally. Kenny creates an equally alarming assault, reducing the role down to practical pounds and ounces, so to speak, and yet he’s more or less left alone. Of course, as stated before, his is one written in a more analytical and articulate manner, taking the filml not its star. Kenny is creating a case for his criticism, not a sloppy shorthanded rejection. Reed’s rant comes across as a basely bleating, an ass-headed assertion, a deliberate attack meant to prove nothing other than his hatred of the overweight.

Yet neither addresses the core concern – to wit: should someone with an obvious social difference trade on same for the sake of a laugh? We see it all the time in these films – the naked elderly, the awkward and overly skinny geek, the ramped up racial stereotype. Indeed, humor based on a crude visual cue has always been around. It’s like slapstick robbed of the exacting choreography, a reaction to an exaggeration or shocking human scenario without anything more than a facade. Three decades ago, John Waters called it bad taste. Today, it’s been embraced as part of mainstream moviemaking. Reed’s need to reduce Ms. McCarthy down to a series of mean-spirited slams are nothing more than cries for attention. Perhaps next time he should disparage the directors, script, story, etc, and not someone’s dress size.