For all the glee produced by the hair gel joke in There’s Something About Mary, I confess that sometimes I wish the whole thing never happened. Yes, it the movie gave Cameron Diaz a chance to show what a good sport she is, Ben Stiller a chance to get the girl, and Diaz and Matt Dillon a chance to get to know each other, even if it didn’t last. But still, I regret the major fallout of the grand success of the film, which is that Bobby and Peter Farrelly have free rein to make it again and again and again (and, as we all know, they were making it before Mary, as Kingpin and Dumb and Dumber). Now, it’s getting old.
That’s not to say that the latest version of that film, Shallow Hal, has nothing redeeming about it. Any movie that gives Jack Black more to do than bounce off the Romantic Lead has something going for it. This guy is endlessly watchable. Whether he’s blowing shit up for Bruce Willis in The Jackal, extolling the virtues of some obscure indie band to Johnny Cusack in High Fidelity, shooting heroin with Billy Crudup in Jesus’ Son, or trundling through the wintry wilderness in the video for “Wonderboy,” the new single by his two-man band, Tenacious D, Black is always a pleasure. Irony, weirdness, perversion — he has it all. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came a-knocking.
It’s too bad that Shallow Hal doesn’t make full use of Black’s charismatic strangeness. Already it’s being called the Farrellys’ most “mainstream” offering to date, and, as annoying as their previous films have been, this is not necessarily good news. The brothers’ inclination toward sappiness has, in the past, been held in check by their affection for gross-out humor. Shallow Hal is more sentimental and ostensibly more moralistic, in its purported pro-depth of feeling, anti-weight discrimination “message,” but in the end, it all seems pretty superficial.
The basic formula is much the same as the Farrellys’ other movies: the hero, strange as he may be, is set off by much odder and more offensive types. Hal is a goofy, unself-conscious loser of a party animal who never notices that the typically beautiful girls he dates (or tries to date) are idiotic or really mean. He believes this because, a pre-credits scene informs us, when he was nine years old, his father offered these words of wisdom from his deathbed: “Don’t be satisfied with routine poontang.” Somehow, this instruction translates for Hal as: “Be shallow.” And so he is, with gusto: again and again, he pursues the babe with the skimpiest top and most phenomenal bone structure (though he admits it would be all right with him if she was “into culture and shit, too”). The first time you see adult Hal, he’s on the hunt, gyrating like a wounded animal across the dance floor, pumping his neck, checking the chicks, uncomprehending when they dis him outright. And oh yes, his sideburns are way too long to be cool.
Hal is encouraged in his wolfish antics by his best friend, Mauricio (KFC pitchman Jason Alexander). Like most buddies in romantic comedies, even the gross-out ones, Mauricio is the designated sounding board and foil. And so he looks much worse than Hal, supplementing his terrible toupee with spray-on hair-in-a-can, and nurturing a George-Costanza-like obsession with his current girlfriend’s second toe: it’s longer than the big toe, and so, he resolves, he must break up with her. By comparison, Hal’s arrogance seems less odious: when we meet him, he’s the dumpee rather than the dumper. Still, he’s a jerk and must be de-jerked: according to Peter Farrelly, the movie is “about a guy who finds his soul and realizes what’s important” (however these events might be related).
This soul-finding process is jumpstarted by none other than Tony Robbins, playing himself. When the two are stuck on an elevator together, Hal spews his tale of unlucky-in-love woe, and Robbins, taking pity on him, puts the zap on his head, such that, from then on, Hal will see only people’s “inner beauty,” not their external appearances. This presents an interesting problem, as the film must now show Hal’s perspective while also letting you in on the joke that what he’s seeing is not what everyone else sees.
Typically, the camera first shows Hal’s vision, say, the beautiful girl at the club, and then someone else’s point of view, say, Mauricio looking at the same spot on the dance floor, now occupied by a girl with a large nose, bad skin, braces, saggy breasts, etc., boogying with a very enthusiastic Hal. The joke is supposedly on Hal, who doesn’t see what you or Mauricio sees, but it’s also, no surprise, on the girl, delirious that she has finally met someone, even someone as crass and hokey as Hal, who sees her and likes her fine the way she is. According to the film’s rudimentary — not to say shallow — logic, the outwardly “ugly” person always possesses “inner beauty.” Otherwise, the joke doesn’t work.
Enter Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow, sometimes in a fat suit, sometimes substituted by another actor, shot from behind), with whom he falls promptly in love because, to him, she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow. Though Mauricio almost chokes on his hotdog when he sees her and proceeds to call her names (“rhino,” “cow,” etc.), Hal stubbornly believes his own eyes. He sees only Rosie’s goodness (which equates to thinness): she’s smart, funny, and quick, a Peace Corps worker and a volunteer at the local hospital’s pediatrics ward. It’s not until Hal has the zap lifted that he learns his lesson, by realizing that he really is in love with her “inner beauty” even if she does weigh 300 pounds on the outside. Until then, he can only wonder why others (including Rosie’s own father, who happens to be Hal’s employer) make rude remarks about her appearance and chairs collapse beneath her.
Such comic hijinks make Hal look goofily gallant and Rosie mostly pitiable. It seems that the film’s “message” is that it’s easy to fall in love someone who looks like Gwyneth Paltrow, and harder with someone who weighs 300 pounds or has warts on her nose. And this is the case even if you look like Jack Black, because most men, for all the image anxieties and affection for liposuction that they’ve been developing in recent years, still don’t have quite the same investment in their appearances as most women. At some level, the film works overtime to indict conventional beauty standards and masculine privilege and unself-consciousness. This is surely a simple idea, though perhaps it’s a step forward (or in some direction) for the Farrellys: this time out, no chickens up anyone’s derriere, no Frisbees to the head, not even a fart joke.
Still, the targets are easy to spot, including Mauricio (who never changes appearance for Hal, even when Hal has the zap). Mauricio is really the shorter, rounder version of Hank in Me, Myself & Irene: he says the mean things that make you laugh and also make you wonder why you’re laughing, and then he gets his own comeuppance at film’s end. And so, while the film makes an obvious moral point, it also lets you off the hook, because you know that Mauricio is not really your point of identification, and Hal is really in love with Gwyneth Paltrow, whose fat suit (not revealed in full until film’s end) is unconvincing. That is, the usual beauty standards remain in place.
This is the rub, really, in the film’s manifestly good intentions. Like Julia Roberts before her (who wore a fat suit for America’s Sweethearts), Paltrow has been hawking the film on talk shows, discussing the stretch that she wanted to make with the comedic role, as well as her adventures in the fat suit. When she had it on, people wouldn’t look at her on the street or the hotel bar, she says: “No one wanted to connect with me. It was a profound, very sad and startling experience.” And so, she’s been ending her interviews — on Today or Good Morning America or wherever — with a declaration that “we need to fight weight discrimination.” It’s good to have your consciousness raised.