Shallow Hal

How many times have you heard these? "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." "It's what's on the inside that counts." "Size doesn't matter." Wise words, all, and all designed to make us alternately feel better about ourselves or realize how shallow we are.

So, too, is the new Farrelly Brothers film meant to make us think. But since it's from the Farrellys, it should also make us laugh. Mixing low comedy with a heartfelt social message, Shallow Hal wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Unfortunately, it's just not that good a cake.

From the outset, the film fails the wooden puppet test. Molly Shannon makes a wasted cameo as Hal's mother, as a nine-year-old Hal faces his father's deathbed. Shannon could easily be replaced by a wooden puppet, for all the Farrelly Brothers give her to do. It's the deathbed message to Hal that matters, as his father, doped to the gills on painkillers, tells the boy to accept nothing less than the best for a sexual partner. (Sure, ol' dad puts it more prosaically, but kids might be reading.)

The distraught Hal wanders from his father's hospital room and morphs into Jack Black, doing his thing at a dance club. This dizzying sequence depends almost entirely on Black's ability to be a high-powered doofus, and it works. But eventually we must get to know Hal, slowing the movie down.

Hal and his best friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) hang out at various clubs, rejecting only those women who wouldn't reject them. Mauricio, in fact, has just broken up with a woman because her second toe is slightly longer than her big toe. A man has to have standards.

The only sign that Hal may not be a total jerk lies in his friendship with Walt (Rene Kirby). Born with spinal bifida (a fact awkwardly inserted into the script so that we wouldn't wonder), Walt does not allow his disability to get in his way for anything. He runs a successful software company, volunteers at the local hospital, gets a lot of chicks, and only incidentally walks around on all fours.

In the workplace, Hal continues to be surrounded by ciphers who tell us that at heart he's really a nice guy, but (all together now) shallow. We'd like to believe that, too, as Black has that rare quality of letting an audience see the desperation within. About an hour later the film remembers to show us that he's not totally self-absorbed, but that's just too late. When Hal gets trapped in an elevator with self-help guru Anthony J. Robbins (playing himself as if trapped in an SNL sketch), his stream of consciousness blathering, while funny, does not make him sound like a nice guy.

Robbins hypnotizes Hal into seeing people as they really are inside, a nifty trick if you can pull it off. Immediately, Hal finds himself able to talk to really hot women without them walking away. Of course, we know that they are far from the beauties he sees, and Mauricio is appalled at the quality of women Hal keeps veering toward.

Until Hal meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), and then he only has eyes for her. Occasionally the audience catches her true form in reflections and backviews, but Hal can only see the girl of his dreams.

From there the movie takes time out for a series of sight gags, the best of which have been given away by the trailer. But none of them have the loopy over the top quality that the best of the Farrellys' work has. Aside from their premise, everything else feels grounded in reality, and for a comedy, that's a shame.

More clever than funny, Shallow Hal has at its heart an interesting idea, though it plays out more like a long light-hearted Twilight Zone episode than anything else. We do get played quite a bit as many characters get introduced post-hypnotism, so the audience cannot be sure who is really ugly and who is not. Some of the revelations may be intended as punchlines, but it grows both too disorienting and tiresome to get laughs. In hindsight, though, it is kind of funny that Jason Alexander still looks like Jason Alexander. Does that mean he's good or bad?

Alexander provides the most real comic relief. His Mauricio may be an amped-up George Costanza, but he also has a sweet cluelessness that almost (almost) makes up for his being a total pig. As a result, he also has all the best lines.

Matching Alexander's energy is, of course, Black. At least he doesn't have to play stupid. Hal may be blind to his own shortcomings, but he's sharp in everything else. His words defending Rosemary's beauty may be the result of an hypnotic spell, but Black delivers them with such conviction that we forget that he is, after all, still talking about Gwyneth Paltrow. Say what you will about her, her beauty does not need defending.

Nor, for once, does her acting. Paltrow unexpectedly provides the heart of Shallow Hal. Where Hal sees only Rosemary's beauty, she can only see what looks back at her from the mirror. Even when not wearing the fat suit, Paltrow never loses the gait and mannerisms of a heavy young woman filled with a resigned bitterness. So effective is it as a performance that the first full-on shot of Paltrow's face in fat make-up does not come as a shock.

It's lost in an uneven film, but Gwyneth Paltrow gives one of the best performances of the year. And this comes from a guy who doesn't think she's ever been that great.

The problem may be that the Farrelly Brothers are growing up. They have always been slyly sensitive; despite what audiences may have thought, their films have always avoided mocking the less fortunate. But usually we laugh too hard to think about it.

With Shallow Hal, the balance is too uneasy. The brothers may be vacating their thrones as kings of gross-out comedy, but it may open the door for interesting, more serious work.

This just isn't quite it.

What's it worth? $5

Derek McCaw

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