Stick with the slob comedy
The Farrelly brothers, makers of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, attempt to make a “nice” movie with Shallow Hal, a well-meaning film that comes off as sloppy and insincere.
While I don’t doubt the Farrellys’ sincerity about their subjects, I do question their ability to convey emotionally moving material. This story—about seeing the inner beauty in people who might not possess conventionally attractive exteriors—has potential, but the brothers botch it up in the end.
After a delirious deathbed declaration by his father, advising him to only seek “hot young tail,” Hal (Jack Black in his first leading role) leads a shallow life when it comes to the ladies: He only goes for those who possess perfect looks. This outlook has resulted in not one meaningful relationship for Hal, as he gregariously pursues “hot” women at dance clubs with his condescending pal (Jason Alexander, sporting some of cinema’s all-time worst hair).
A chance meeting with inspirational speaker Tony Robbins (God … the man is huge!) results in Hal being hypnotized. From that moment on, he will only be able to see the inner beauty in people. Those who might be considered ugly by the majority will now appear as beautiful as models to him if they are genuinely good people. This also works in reverse, with physically beautiful people appearing as hideous as their personalities in the eyes of Hal.
Hal meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a 300-pound Peace Corps worker who looks like the slim Paltrow through his hypno-goggles. It’s love at first sight, and the two start a relationship that benefits Hal vocationally, because she is the boss’ daughter.
Perhaps the Farrelly comic well is running dry. Since Mary, films such as Me, Myself and Irene and Osmosis Jones haven’t been laugh riots. With Shallow Hal, they are going for sentimental drama mixed with their usual brand of slob humor, and it doesn’t work. The brothers are as heavy-handed and immature with the emotional stuff as they are blunt and nasty with their humor. A moment in a children’s pediatric burn unit that is supposed to be shocking and moving is just shockingly dreadful.
While the film does go for some of the trademark lowbrow humor, the greatest jokes were wrecked for me on a personal level, because I’ve seen the damned give-it-all-away commercial for the film seemingly thousands of times. The canoe gag, the pool gag … they’re funny, but not all that funny the umpteenth time. Other jokes, like chairs busting underneath Paltrow, are semi-funny, but not gut-busters. Shallow Hal is in many ways a simple romantic comedy with a few laughs.
The performers can’t be blamed for the film’s ultimate disappointment. Paltrow is a sweetheart as Rosemary—her usual beautiful self on screen, but carrying her body like someone lugging a lot of physical and emotional weight. There are nice subtle touches in the way she moves, as if she has invisible weights hanging from her limbs. When Paltrow dons a fat suit for the film’s final act, she manages to act through the makeup with charm.
While Black handles his role competently, his performance feels like a missed opportunity. The Farrellys have provided a great comic and acting force with pedestrian, often boring material, forcing Black to go ultra-mellow at times. While he’s certainly capable of deep drama, I thought a Farrelly collaboration would result in a bad-taste humor free-for-all. No such luck. I saw Black on Halloween Eve in San Francisco as part of the rock duo Tenacious D, and that evening was far funnier than anything in this movie.
Shallow Hal is sometimes cute, but its confusing tone makes it hard to laugh at and hard to take seriously. I wonder if this is the film the Farrellys meant to make, or if they cleaned it up for the PG-13 rating. Whatever the intent, it’s just not very good.