For a romantic comedy about seeing beyond fat to a person’s inner beauty, “Shallow Hal” could use a little extra comic poundage. The Farrelly brothers’ latest sees the team tapping a sweeter, milder vein of humor than their outrageous norm, one defined by an overriding good-hearted moral and goosed by the far-flung notion of Gwyneth Paltrow playing an obese young lady whose svelte charms only Jack Black can see. Although it’s low on hefty laughs and the PG-13 rating won’t thrill the Farrellys’ old core audience of gross-out seeking teens, Fox release has enough amusing and endearing moments to put it over as a reasonably commercial date movie before the holiday blockbusters move in.
In addition to repping a change of pace for the Farrellys, “Hal” marks a significant departure for Paltrow away from her status as the tony Miramax house actress and into a thoroughly mainstream low- to middlebrow starring vehicle. With platinum blond hair and an accentuated figure even in her non-tubby incarnation, this is a different Paltrow, one with a more generic and less distinguished look. Pic also provides Black with his first starring role after his breakthrough supporting turn in “High Fidelity.”
Amazingly, after five films, the Farrellys have not progressed one iota in the realm of technique; their filmmaking skills remain as rudimentary as they were on “Dumb and Dumber” seven years ago. When the comic situations and gags are just flat-out hilarious, as they often have been in the brothers’ work, the stylistic roughness doesn’t much matter. In this film, however, with the relatively untested Black coming on awfully strong, the lack of directorial finesse lets the enterprise down, creating some clunky scenes and dead air where laughs might have been expected.
A very “Shrek”-like tale in its view of physical compatibility, script by Sean Moynihan and the Farrellys proposes Black’s Hal and his vulgar buddy Mauricio (Jason Alexander) as two dubious, overweight Lotharios who ineptly play the club circuit but still won’t consider dating any woman who’s not supermodel-beautiful. Mauricio, who wears a toupee that looks like black Astroturf, is so picky that he breaks up with his latest hottie because of her overlong second toe. Hal, after being told by co-workers that he always aims out of his league, takes advantage of a stuck-elevator encounter with self-help motivator Tony Robbins to come under a “spell” that allows him to see what’s inside women rather than judging them on the basis of appearance only.
Right away, Hal’s outlook on life picks up, and his effect on the ladies with it. A beautiful blonde with whom he shares a taxi gives him her number, and three sizzling club dollies all but take him hostage. But when we see these same women from Mauricio’s p.o.v., the gag is revealed: Those Hal sees as gorgeous and without flaws are actually dogs of the first order — rotund, unkempt, uncouth and in urgent need of dental work.
Then he meets Rosemary (Paltrow). Although she’s first glimpsed in an apparel store examining panties that look custom made for a sumo wrestler, Hal comes on to her, complimenting her as if she were as slim as the Paltrow Hal and we see. Grateful for the attention but suspicious of being admired for qualities she knows she lacks, Rosemary, who’s heavy enough to repeatedly break restaurant chairs she’s sitting upon, warily allows Hal to court her, and both are surprised when they realize that she is Hal’s boss’ daughter.
Much of the early going feels labored and curiously mirthless, considering the ease with which the Farrellys have generated laughs in the past. Part of this could be attributed to overconfidence in the uproariousness of the central conceit, and to some degree it stems from overkill by Black and Alexander, both of whom push past the red line in playing aggressive over-compensators; at such energy levels, a little of each of them goes a long way.
Although pic, like “Me, Myself & Irene” last year, is overlong at nearly two hours, action picks up and develops increased cohesiveness in the second half. While Rosemary’s father Steve Shanahan (“Analyze This” tough guy Joe Viterelli, sporting a delightfully thick Irish brogue) is highly skeptical of Hal’s motives, he’s won over by the young man’s sincerity and is so taken with his business ideas that he promotes him at the investment firm.
But all goes awry when Mauricio, frantic over his best friend’s myopia, tracks down Robbins and convinces him that Hal needs to be dehypnotized for his own good. So when Hal finally realizes what his beloved actually looks like, he temporarily heads for the hills, much to Rosemary’s distress, until the predictably public apology and reconciliation send everyone home happy.
Almost as an afterthought, the Farrellys toss in a couple of moderate gross-outs late in the game, notably one involving an unusual appendage of Mauricio’s. And while there are plenty of references to fat, physical attributes and lack of same, they are notably not mean-spirited or derisive; hell, Rosemary even works in a hospital for children who need special care, and one of the main supporting roles is played by an amazing chap named Rene Kirby whose drastic spinal condition called spina bifida forces him to get around on all fours but who is amazingly spirited and is even shown to be an expert skier.
With his stocky working class demeanor, Black has a regular guy image that reps a good change of pace for a leading man. But the actor’s brazen glibness is relentless and scarcely modulated, which proves too much in the long run and doesn’t yield to a display of vulnerability that would match that provided by Paltrow’s Rosemary. Actress catches the character’s shy sense of disbelief at being wooed so enthusiastically, and at the end is able to express — through layers of mountainous makeup — the heartbreak and residual hope she feels about her first romance.
Many student films boast better technical and aesthetic qualities than this one does, but the Farrellys make their usual sprightly use of pop songs.