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Is It Ever Appropriate to Slam a Movie Because of a Star’s Appearance?

Hmmm… Okay, maybe this isn’t entirely a fair example, but the thought occurred to me while reading the Guardian’s review of Couples’ Retreat and the reviewer spent his first paragraph critising Vince Vaugn’s weight. I wish I were kidding, but here’s the quote:

Favreau was always on the chunky side, to be fair, and he’s been doing fine behind the camera with the Iron Man movies, but back in Swingers, Vaughn had the requisite skinniness to persuade us he really was a half-starved young Hollywood actor. Now he has boy boobs, love handles and back fat. And all this (a lot of this) in a movie that requires him to wear a swimsuit most of the time.

The review then goes on to make a somewhat valid criticism of his current career choices (while kicking Jennifer Aniston, which is just mean – if a little bit justified), but speaks little about the offending movie in general. I know that it isn’t really fair to complain about a review criticising a guy’s appearance – I acknowledge that woman are probably more affected by our image-conscious society – but is it ever really fair to slam a movie based upon the lead actor’s appearance?

Phat or fat?

Phat or fat?

Okay, I’ll be fair. Maybe criticisms of Vaugn’s weight would be slightly more valid if he were starring as… say, a male model or a Vietnam prisoner of war. I think it’s reasonably valid to make such judgements about characters starring in roles that depend on their physical condition to say something about the character (be it the line of work the are in or their eating habits). I won’t pretend that appearances shouldn’t be taken into account in some cases – for example in casting a biography you may want an actor who resembles the figure you are profiling. These cases are the exception, not the rule, though.

Not that there is a pick on any of the female leads, but I think there might have been some form of reaction had the review referred to Kristen Davis as bloated or Kristen Bell as having “back fat” and then making a complaint that the movie makes us stare at them in their swimsuits. I think that would have been inappropriate and I think that complaining about a male lead in that manner is just as inappropriate.

Perhaps a more interesting question to ask – and a valid discussion to have – would be why it is okay for the male leads to be overweight, but not the female leads? There’s an interesting topic of conversation right there. The answer, ironically, is quite simple: because people make judgements like that based on appearance. It’s not okay for a female lead to be overweight, because she’ll be mocked – why is it okay for the men? The solution isn’t to suggest that it’s wrong for the male leads to carry a little bit of extra weight (and, seriously, it isn’t like either of them could be Santa Claus, for example), but to suggest that it’s wrong that any lead (male or female) needs to be borderline annorexic in order to headline a comedy.

Maybe – and I’m not even sure on this – but maybe it’s okay to comment on an actor’s weight gain if you think it’s relevent to a profile. Like Marlon Brando in his twilight years, for example, when many commentators drew a connection between his isolation, depression and massive weight gain. I think that this is what the review quoted above was trying to do. It used the fact that Vince Vaugn had man boobs to segue into a deconstruction of his career over the past few years. I just don’t buy it in this case.

First of all, a lot of guys have man boobs. Some have them all their lives, some have them and then they go, and some earn them over time. Unless they large, they generally go without comment. And the offending boobs aren’t large. Most men at that age will get man boobs like that. It isn’t like they are going to hit him in the face while he’s jogging or something ridiculous like that.

And, secondly, whle he has put on some weight, I don’t think it can be used as evidence he is in a downword spiral or something smilarly ridiculous. He isn’t having a Robert-Downey-Jnr.-style breakdown or anything crazy like that – he’s simple making mediocre romantic comedies. Jennifer Aniston (who, as you point out, is similarly afflicted) hasn’t put on the poundage herself, so I don’t think it’s a fair comment to make. Maybe it would be valid if you could say it was an indication of a more serious problem – showing up on set drunk or not showing up at all or being arrested or a valid complaint like that – but instead it comes across as calling a kid fat because you don’t like his crayon doodling and then saying that he can’t draw properly because his fingers are too chubby.

Seriously, grow up.

I know that it’s probably hypocritical that a reviewer making comments about a guy sparked my anger, but had he made a similar complaint about a female lead it would equally have disturbed me. I know that we live in a society dominated by appearances, but I expect papers like the Guardian to rise above it, rather than using it as an excuse to take cheap shots at an actor who hasn’t been reaching his potential recently.

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