Shallow Hal (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since they burst upon the motion picture scene with Dumb and Dumber, the Farrelly Brothers, Bobby and Peter, have been known as the Kings of Vulgar Comedy. So, given the Farrellys' reputation and a title with the word "shallow" in it, one might easily expect more of the same from the producing/writing/directing duo. In that respect, however, Shallow Hal surprises. Neither gross, nor obscene, nor perverse, this motion picture sets out to do something that no other Farrelly Brothers film has yet done: tell a story with a moral. Shallow Hal is a sweet, somewhat dumb romantic comedy that's almost impossible to actively dislike. It's also tame enough to earn a PG-13 rating from the MPAA (although, given the inconsistency of the Ratings Board, that doesn't mean much).

Hal (Jack Black) is about as shallow as they come. When asked the question of whether he would prefer a woman with only one breast or half a brain, his response is, "How big is the breast?" The shape of a woman's figure and the size of her chest are his primary qualifications in choosing a partner. However, while that might work for someone with above-average looks, Hal could generously be called "ordinary". Hence, the kind of women he's looking for, aren't looking for him. Hal's best friend, Mauricio (Jason Alexander), is in pretty much the same boat, so the two of them spend time consoling each other - until fate steps in.

One day, Hal becomes stuck in an elevator with self-help guru Anthony Robbins. Robbins, understanding Hal's predicament with women, decides to give him a gift - he hypnotizes Hal so, when he meets a woman, he sees not her physical appearance, but her inner beauty. Soon afterwards, Hal meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is astonished that she is willing to go out with him. However, the girl who looks like a stunning, willowy blonde to Hal appears to everyone else like a white, female version of Professor Sherman Klump. But, as Robbins puts it, "The brain sees what the heart want it to feel." Or something like that...

Shallow Hal contains its share of cute scenes, and even offers a few surprisingly touching moments (such as the one when Rosemary realizes that Hal is genuinely interested in her, not just making fun of her). And, as in all romantic comedies of this ilk, you have to be willing to greatly suspend disbelief. In for a penny, in for a pound. But, despite these laudatory qualities, there's a flaw to Shallow Hal, and it's not an insignificant one. The movie is, simply and succinctly, not especially funny. Oh, there are some laughs to be had, but most of those punch-lines, which concern the differences between how Hal and the world view Rosemary, have been given away by the TV commercials and theatrical trailers. Unlike There's Something About Mary and Me, Myself & Irene, sequences intended to generate laughter are at a premium. In fact, there are times when the comedy, inasmuch as there is comedy, feels forced and contrived - as if the Farrellys realized they are expected to provide raucous humor, and grafted some material into the script just to keep their reputation intact.

Jack Black's performance suffers from the same schizoid problem. Black is fine in the low-key scenes, but, on those occasions when the screenplay demands that he go over-the-top, his work seems strained. It's not that he can't play loud, rambunctious characters - he did quite well in High Fidelity and Saving Silverman - but it doesn't work here. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow is delightfully sweet as Rosemary, the big girl who is discovering the joys of love for the first time (for most of the film, Paltrow appears as herself - Rosemary as seen through Hal's eyes - but there are occasions when she has to don a huge "fat suit"). And, as the wisecracking "third wheel", Jason Alexander provides some acerbic wit.

Curiously, the message of Shallow Hal is identical to that of Shrek. (Come to think of it, there are certain similarities to the plots, as well.) Both movies want us to recognize that inner beauty, not physical appearance, is what counts, or, to employ the proverb, "Don't judge a book by its cover." The fact that a Farrelly Brothers comedy has any sort of moral at all comes as something of a shock; nevertheless, Shrek offers a more rewarding journey to the same destination. Shallow Hal is light, harmless, and in need of a dose of the outrageousness that made There's Something About Mary more enjoyable.

Shallow Hal (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2001-11-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1