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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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