For all the buzz generated by its gross-out gags, the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary likely would not have become the phenomenon that it was had there not been some genuine heart behind the hair gel — an idea reinforced by the disappointing grosses (no pun intended) of its more crass romantic comedy follow-up, Me, Myself & Irene. The surprisingly sweet “Shallow Hal” finds Peter and Bobby retreating to a gentler mode — and, in the process, a far less funny one.
Many prudish filmgoers feared the worst from “Shallow Hal,” given its potentially offensive premise. The Hal of the title (Jack Black) falls for the svelte golden girl (Gwyneth Paltrow) of his appearance-obsessed dreams. As it turns out, social worker Rosemary is not Hal’s swimsuit-issue-ready ideal, but quite the opposite; in fact, she tips the scales at at least 300 pounds. But thanks to a hypnotic suggestion by self-help guru Tony Robbins (playing himself), shallow Hal has been programmed to only see the inner beauty of people, and there’s something about Rosemary…
To the certain chagrin of the PC crowd, the Farrellys and writing collaborator Sean Moynihan have not shied away from the obvious fat jokes. The twist, however, is that most occur with Paltrow not in fat drag, and it’s a wise decision; seeing the idealized version of Rosemary cause huge splashes in pools and make chairs break adds a layer of irony to the humor, not to mention it sidesteps the potentially incendiary image of a large person in such situations. In fact, the Farrellys offer only fleeting glimpses of Rosemary’s true appearance for most of the picture, and even then, at a distance or only in part–another wise move, for when we finally do get a good look at Paltrow in full makeup (which, it must be said, is nowhere on par with, say, the work on Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor movies), one doesn’t laugh at her since one has gotten to know Rosemary so well.
And do the writers and Paltrow ever develop a likable character in Rosemary. Despite being seen in her “idealized” form for most of the picture, Paltrow is very convincing at conveying the character’s rather universal appearance-based insecurities and vulnerabilities. She also just as easily projects Rosemary’s appealing goodness and sense of humor whether in or out of makeup. Paltrow and Black make for an unconventional screen pairing, which gives their easygoing chemistry an added charm. On his end, Black keeps Hal from being a complete boor; the development of his deep affections for Rosemary is disarmingly sweet. His Hal may be shallow, but he’s not obnoxious–that quality is reserved for best friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander), who gets most of the big laughs.
If only there were more of those big laughs. As nice as it is to see the Farrelly Brothers turn a corner of sorts and succeed in making a film of unusual sensitivity, “Shallow Hal” is still a comedy, and this film’s safe and sedate approach is a far cry from the reckless, spontaneous abandon that typically give the Farrellys’ films such spark. The warm smiles “Hal” generates qualifies it as a pleasant moviegoing experience, but ultimately it doesn’t make it particularly memorable.
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