Shallow Hal (2001)

Todd R. Ramlow

What is unfortunate about 'Hal' is that while the Farrellys' previous offerings were, for all their sophomoric dick and fart humor, somewhat good-spirited, their new film is just plain old mean.

Shallow Hal

Director: Peter Farrelly
Display Artist: Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jack Black, Jason Alexander, Tony Robbins
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2001-11-09

The Farrelly brothers are at it again. Two of cinema's more recent enfants terribles, the pair returns with Shallow Hal in order, it would seem, to re-stake their claim to the kings of gross-out humor title. Unfortunately, their claim has already been indisputably usurped by Tom Green's atrociously offensive Freddy Got Fingered, in relation to which Shallow Hal pales. Now, this might just seem like a good thing, and really, I am at least glad I didn't have to sit through some Freddy wannabe. What is unfortunate about Hal, however, is that while the Farrellys' previous offerings were, for all their sophomoric dick and fart humor, somewhat good-spirited, their new film is just plain old mean.

In There's Something About Mary, Ben Stiller's nudnik shtick was amusing as always, and is made more so by the various self-abuses he subjects himself to in his quest for Mary. Similarly, Jim Carrey's schizophrenic cop in Me, Myself & Irene is most amusing when beating himself up. This is to say that for all the non-PC poking fun at "groups" and "types" of people, the thrust of these films' humor was self-abusive. Not so in Hal. Here the jokes are always about someone else's physical shortcomings, or, rather, physical excess.

Shallow Hal mines familiar Farrelly terrain. The plot follows one bumbling, idiotic yet somehow lovable doofus who is smitten with a curvy and/or leggy blonde and desperately seeks her love and acceptance. The doofus in this case is Hal (Jack Black), an obsessively superficial single guy, who, he is reminded by coworkers, always goes for girls WAY out of his league -- and always fails. Even so, he can't get past his nit-picky requirements for female beauty, and is perpetually bewildered why all these super-model types don't go for husky boys with severe social mal-adjustments like himself (of course, he doesn't see himself in these terms, in his own mind's eye he is quite a catch).

Enter infomercial and inspirational super-guru Tony Robbins, playing infomercial and inspirational super-guru Tony Robbins. The two get stuck on an elevator, and during their time together, Tony is stunned by Hal's the extent of superficiality. Just so, Tony puts some sort of hypnotist gris-gris on Hal so that from now on, he will only see a person's inner beauty (or ugliness), and not be so merely skin-deep in his romantic inclinations. Robbins's appearance in the film might be amusing if it weren't for the fact that his magic act seems so true to life. Really, the guy's career is mystifying. He "inspires" people with overworked, new-agey platitudes about "self-empowerment" and "creative visualization," and by telling them things they already knew, or things that aren't any different from Oprah's self-centered zealotry. He is famous for being famous, he inspires by being inspirational, and in the process bilks millions of folks out of their hard earned dough. He's a snake-oil salesman, yet Shallow Hal attributes him some supernatural power over men's minds. But perhaps that is the point -- Robbins is no more or less ridiculous in Hal than he is in real life.

Anyhow, after his transformation Hal meets and falls almost immediately in love with Rosemary Shanahan (Gwyneth Patlrow), who, as you already know from the film's advertising blitz, is a big fatty, even though when Hal looks at her, all he sees is the ethereal Gywnnie. And here, of course, is the source of all of the film's humor. Hal sees and chats up "pretty" girls, then we see the physical reality of these women through the eyes of other characters. That one's fat. That one looks like a scarecrow with a big nose and braces. That one is totally dykey-looking. Hee, hee, fat girls are funny. So are ugly girls. So are any girls who don't look like Paulina, Giselle, or Gwyneth.

Hal does try to undo some of its own chauvinism, misogyny, and general awfulness towards physical difference, by, no surprise, making Hal love Rosemary even after he has been de-hypnotized and realizes just how fat she is. Hal's awakening is accomplished with the help of his beer-guzzling buddy Mauricio (Jason Alexander), who is even shallower, if that is imaginable, than Hal. Discouraged by all the "elephants," "rhinos," and "dogs" Hal has been chasing after, Mauricio tracks down Robbins, gets the answer to "What did you do to Hal?" as well as the hypnotist's code to break his spell over his pal. Hal has a crisis, realizes the only solution is to become re-hypnotized, avoids Rosemary like the plague, and, when this solution doesn't materialize, realizes he loves her no matter what she looks like. After their rapprochement -- and I'm not giving anything away, as the film is being promoted as "the biggest love story ever told" -- the two drive off into the sunset.

OK, so everyone, even Mauricio, learns his lesson -- beauty is only skin deep, it's what's on the inside that counts, etc. Well this touchy-feely ending, however appropriately un-bigoted and positive about physical difference it tries to be, can't make up for the 90 minutes of fat jokes that precede it. The bulk of the film is made up of visions of Rosemary in various awkward positions and stats of undress, and the running gag is that she is always breaking seemingly indestructible furniture in Hal's apartment and restaurants -- where, naturally, she out-eats, in bulk and speed, Hal at every meal.

I will say one positive thing about Shallow Hal, and that is that Paltrow turns in a relatively nuanced performance. At the beginning of her relationship with Hal, Paltrow does a nice job expressing Rosemary's wariness at Hal's attentions, her awareness of the world's discriminations, and still, her willingness to believe that Hal might be true. She knows she's a big girl in a weight-obsessed world, and she's seen and heard it all. She knows the depth of people's cruelty and essentially tells Hal he'd better not fuck with her. It's even more unfortunate, then, that most of the film's jokes come at her expense.

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