Archive for Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Out of the shallow end

November 7, 2001

Could it be that the Farrelly brothers have mellowed? The guys who

created "Dumb & Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary" have

always given their films a touch of sweetness, but they were mostly

about seeing how many ways people could be grossed out. Although

"Shallow Hal" still has moments that will make viewers laugh and

cover their eyes at the same time, it's a surprisingly gentle, even

romantic story about the value of inner beauty.

Hal (Jack Black) is, indeed, incredibly shallow, judging every woman

by looks alone. Since he's not exactly a perfect specimen of manhood

himself, he gets shot down every time. And it never occurs to him or

his best friend, Mauricio (Jason Alexander), that they might try

dating women based on things like kindness and intelligence.

When Hal gets stuck in an elevator with Tony Robbins, he receives

"special" treatment from the self-help guru, who basically hypnotizes

him into seeing inner beauty rather than what simply meets the eye.

Before long, Hal falls for Rosemary, his boss' extremely overweight

daughter - but she's such a great person, he views her as Gwyneth

Paltrow.

While Hal is completely oblivious to what's been done to him,

everyone else thinks he's nuts, especially Rosemary, who can't

understand why he's always telling her how svelte and stunning she

is. His co-workers (and her dad) think he's using her to get a

promotion, and it takes the increasingly agitated Mauricio to figure

out the truth and make Robbins undo the whammy. When he finally sees

Rosemary's true appearance, Hal has to decide just what kind of

person HE is inside.

Black routinely steals movies from better-known actors ("High

Fidelity" being a recent example), and it's nice to see him get a

lead role, especially one so perfectly suited to his geeky intensity.

Hal is a man so programmed for superficiality, he doesn't even know

what's beneath his own surface - and he's pretty delusional about the

surface, too. Being around Rosemary actually makes him a better

person, and you can see the shift in his attitude as the movie

progresses.

Paltrow continues to show remarkable range, revealing the toughness

and humor that go along with Rosemary's insecurity, and actually

convincing the audience that she doesn't think she's beautiful. The

rare shots of Rosemary's "true" self are apparently handled by a body

double early on, with Paltrow donning a remarkably unconvincing fat

suit for the movie's last segment. The fact that she can still give a

performance under all that latex is further testament to her ability.

Alexander is basically playing another variation on his "Seinfeld"

character, which isn't entirely a bad thing, since he's so well

versed at it. The real surprise is Robbins, who can actually act, at

least well enough to avoid embarrassing himself. Plus, it's a great

opportunity for self-promotion, of which he does a fair amount.

The Farrellys (Bobby and Peter) direct the film, co-writing the

screenplay with Sean Moynihan, and they generally seem to understand

that "Shallow Hal" works better without the over-the-top gags. Of

course, they can't resist tossing in a few jarring reminders of their

usual output (Alexander's final scenes are just painful), and those

moments diminish what is otherwise a likable, if innocuous, film.

This inability to stay away from cheap jokes nearly derails the

movie's central message on several occasions, when the filmmakers

play Rosemary's weight for laughs at the same time they're showing

sympathy for the way our appearance-obsessed culture makes her feel

about herself. Most of the time, though, it's obvious what the

Farrellys are trying to say, and they should be admired for

expressing it with a certain amount of sensitivity. It's almost hard

to believe these are the same guys who got laughs out of unusual

"hair gel" and a terrier biting a guy in the crotch.


"Shallow Hal" is rated PG-13.

**1/2

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