Screenplay : Sean Moynihan & Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Gwyneth Paltrow (Rosemary), Jack Black (Hal Larson), Jason Alexander (Mauricio Wilson), Joe Viterelli (Steve Shanahan), Rene Kirby (Walt), Bruce McGill (Rev. Larson), Anthony Robbins (Tony Robbins), Susan Ward (Jill), Zen Gesner (Ralph), Brooke Burns (Katrina)
Pablo Picasso once stated that beauty was "a word without sense." That may be true, but much like what Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography, beauty is something that you may not be able to define, but you know it when you see it. As much as we are told that ideals about aesthetic beauty in other human beings are socially constructed--that is, they change from era to era and with the ebb and flow of human civilization, thus there is nothing inherent or natural about what is considered beautiful at any one time--it is hard to get away from the gut reactions we have to what we perceive as being beautiful or ugly. And, that being the case, one of the ugliest facets of being human is the way those who are not perceived as being beautiful are treated by everyone else. Like it or not, especially in the highly commercialized Western world, we live in a casually acknowledged caste system based on physical attractiveness.
This is the subject of the Farrelly Brothers' new comedy, Shallow Hal, and it tackles the beauty mythos with both humor and sensitivity that may surprise those who think only of body-fluid jokes when they think of the Farrellys. Truth be told, the Farrellys have always been softies at heart, which was evident even in their first movie, Dumb & Dumber (1994), which manages to create sympathy for the titular duo despite (or, actually because of) their mental incapacity. In fact, if there is a running theme throughout their work, it empathy for the downtrodden. Granted, the Farrellys have taken their share of criticism for politically incorrect jokes, but it isn't hard to see that they are basically warm-hearted sentimentalists who also like poop jokes.
That essentially sums up Shallow Hal in a nutshell, although it is by far the most restrained of all their comedies. Jack Black (who stole the show in High Fidelity every time he was on-screen) stars as Hal Larson, a decent guy whose one weakness is his shallow approach to women. Explained by a prologue sequence in which Hal's dying father (Bruce McGill) tells him to never settle for anything but the most attractive woman ("Hot tail is what it's all about" he says, high on pain killers), Hal has spent his life searching for a woman of physical perfection, personality and spirit be damned. One day, he gets trapped in an elevator with a well-dressed self-help guru (played rather awkwardly by real-life self-help guru Tony Robbins) who "alters his perception" by hypnotizing Hal so that he only sees the inner beauty of those he meets.
Silly and contrived as this is, it proves a surprisingly effective visual means of conveying the long-standing saying of how beauty is only skin deep by reversing the spirit and the flesh. Now, in Hal's eyes, one's "inner beauty," his or her true essence, forms the physical body. This explains, then, why he immediately falls in love with the ravishing Rosemary, a Peace Corps volunteer who works at a children's hospital. Although Rosemary is actually obese, to Hal she has the lithe body and svelte face of Gwyneth Paltrow.
Others, of course, do not see Rosemary as Hal sees her, especially his best friend and fellow shallow womanizer, Mauricio (Jason Alexander). The movie's best running joke is Hal's constant exasperation at how others don't see what he sees in Rosemary. "She really takes the cake, huh?" she asks Mauricio, to which the inevitable reply is, "Oh, yes, the whole bakery." Given Hal's well-known shallow approach to dating women, his coworkers become particularly suspicious once it is known that Rosemary is the daughter of Steve Shanahan (Joe Viterelli), the CEO of the investment firm for which Hal works.
Is Shallow Hal offensive, especially to those with a weight problem? I don't think so, even though the Farrellys do fire off more than their share of fat jokes despite the obvious empathy they have for Rosemary. In some ways, they get to have their cake and eat it, too. By making Rosemary morbidly obese, they get to stage numerous verbal and visual gags regarding her weight (for the most part, the overweight Rosemary is only seen in quick cuts and from behind), while in the end wagging their finger at those who would make her life miserable by laughing at her physical appearance.
Yet, to have done otherwise would have been to ignore the reality of the situation and how many people would respond to it. In fact, most of the funniest jokes involving obesity are not at Rosemary's expense, but rather at the expense of Hal and his ineffective means of dealing with her, who he sees as supermodel thin.
One of the Farrelleys' greatest successes in Shallow Hal is the depiction of how female self-esteem is constantly undermined in today's world by a constant barrage of "beautiful is best" messages, which emanate from both the commercial world and from the intimate world of family and friends. Paltrow's empathetic performance of Rosemary makes her discomfort with herself because of how others react to her appearance palpable. This gives the movie a distinct edge, one that lets us know that, while the Farrellys are making a comedy, they are serious that this movie is a "love letter to the unattractive."
It is also key that Hal himself is no prize-winner in the looks department, a joke that Jack Black is more than game to go along with. If the character were played by someone more conventionally handsome, it would not work nearly so well. The humor is in how someone like Hal--ordinary and out of shape as he is--can be so picky in choosing his romantic interests. This is taken to an even further extreme in Mauricio, whose physical unattractiveness is played to the hilt by Jason Alexander and his bad wardrobe and embarrassing astro-turf hairpiece.
Some may not find Shallow Hal funny and may be offended at the subjects from which it provokes laughs. But, these are the same people who don't think that humor should ever be derived from anything that might offend someone else, which pretty much eliminates the entire basis of comedy. What the Farrellys understand is that there is power in laughing at life's problems in a way that still recognizes the humanity of those afflicted with them. Rosemary suffers her share of fat jokes, but in the end we prefer her to all the narcissistic skinny people in the world because at least she understands herself. Self-awareness, as the movie shows, is the strongest defense because it allows us to laugh at ourselves from time to time, and it is those who lack such self-awareness who are most likely to not enjoy this movie.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick