What’s Fat Got To Do With It?

Just Friends’ marketing about-face. 

Out with the fat, in with the cookie-cutter plot 
        Click image to expand.
Out with the fat, in with the cookie-cutter plot

Anyone who keeps their eyes on trailers and movie posters has probably noticed a curious marketing metamorphosis. A few months ago, New Line began hawking Just Friends, which seemed to be a romantic comedy starring Ryan Reynolds as a fat guy in love with skinny Amy Smart. But prior to the movie’s release last Wednesday, the TV spots suddenly ditched Reynolds in the fat suit, promising a more conventional romance.

So, what happened? Is this a case of a Hollywood studio getting cold feet about selling a chubby love story?

Not really. If anything, by dropping the fat gag, New Line offered potential moviegoers a more accurate characterization of the film. Reynolds dons the fat suit for just a few minutes at the beginning of the movie when he is a geek in high school with a crush on his best friend. (The bulk of the plot takes place years later when Reynolds is a suave L.A. music executive home for the holidays in New Jersey wooing his high-school crush.)

But movie ads are a notoriously fungible medium. A few strokes at the edit bay and voilà, The Shining is a feel-good family film.

In the case of Just Friends, selling the film as an obesity comedy in the same vein as Big Momma’s House or The Nutty Professor was New Line’s strategy for its “teaser” campaign—the ads it ran months in advance. Given the film’s cookie-cutter romantic comedy plot, the fat approach seemed like a fresher angle.

“One thing about that fat suit is it certainly sticks out, no pun intended,” says New Line domestic marketing president Russell Schwartz. “We always intended to go more romantic comedy-contemporary as we got closer to release.”

Making trailers that aren’t exactly representative of their films is a time-honored tradition in Hollywood. A few years back, it looked like Warner Bros. had a major bomb on its hands with Kangaroo Jack, a comedy about two dudes chasing a thieving marsupial around Australia. But the studio averted disaster using ads that made the film look like a kiddie picture about a rapping kangaroo. In actuality, the CGI kangaroo makes only a brief cameo during a dream sequence.

Perhaps New Line didn’t stick with the strategy of selling Just Friends as a pretty-person-in-pudgy-prosethetics romp because the shtick is itself wearing thin. In its first five days, Just Friends brought in only $13 million, well behind other movies like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Walk the Line, and Yours, Mine & Ours. Aside from Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor movies, other fat-suit comedies haven’t fared well, either. Despite the shock of seeing Gwyneth Paltrow bulk up in Shallow Hal, the picture performed modestly in 2001, bringing in just $70 million.

So, why are actors still getting into the makeup chair for the fat-suit treatment? It may be that whippet-thin actors (and the studios that pay them) are more enamored with fat suits than audiences are. According to Reynolds, not only was his adventure in obesity a lofty sacrifice for art’s sake (it was a “three-hour ordeal to get the suit on”), it also allowed him to learn a little about himself. “It felt so good not to have to run away from who I am,” he said in a promotional interview. “At heart, I am that insecure little guy who girls ignored.”