My favorite scene in “There’s Something About Mary,” the Farrelly Brothers’ 1998 comedy smash, is the attack of Cameron Diaz’s petite but vicious canine on an unsuspecting Ben Stiller. Thanks to an overdose of speed, the sweet-looking pup lunges at Stiller’s jugular with the strength of a WWF wrestler. After relentlessly forcing the screaming man to the ground, the dog goes right for the crotch. At this point, I was rolling in the aisles, convulsing uncontrollably.
“Shallow Hal,” the Farrelly Brothers’ latest comedy, fails to deliver a moment so uproariously and unapologetically funny. The film, starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow, chooses instead to tug at the heartstrings with a sweet story about the triumph of inner beauty over the superficial societal prioritizing of outward appearances. Despite this absence of belly laughs (there are some nice chuckles, but I remained firmly in my seat), winning performances from the leads make this comedy fun, light and even heartwarming.
Black plays Hal, a superficial dope who lives by his dying reverend father’s final words to “not settle for routine pu-tang.” Unfazed by his own average appearance, Hal will only date a girl with supermodel looks. Despite rejection after rejection, he and his best friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) go to clubs and pathetically try to seduce such “perfect” woman with awkward, painful dance moves and lame pick-up lines.
Yet when Hal meets self-help guru Tony Robbins (played by real life self-help guru Tony Robbins) in a stalled elevator, his immature attitude toward life changes forever. Robbins hypnotizes Hal to see a woman’s inner beauty. Mean but beautiful models begin to look like toothless old hags, while the kinder women Hal would never even consider become knockouts in his eyes. So when he meets Rosemary, a 300-pound woman with a great sense of humor and a heart of gold, she looks like, well, Gwyneth Paltrow, and he falls head over heels in love.
Obvious but not detrimental flaws are conspicuous in “Shallow Hal”; defects that are almost trademark charms of Farrelly Brothers movies and are barely worth mentioning. The dialogue is bereft of subtlety, especially the lines thrown to “Seinfeld” alumnus Jason Alexander: every aspect of his character becomes abundantly clear to the audience in his loud, obnoxious screaming fits. The cameo appearance of Tony Robbins is awkward and unnecessary; why the Farrelly Brothers feel the need to throw non-actors into all their movies is anyone’s guess (what was Brett Favre doing in “There’s Something About Mary”?). Basically the entire supporting cast is underdeveloped and just plain boring.
Finally, we must engage the inevitable and important question of the appropriateness of the fat jokes. Do they reinforce societal stereotypes? Much early press for the film focused on this issue, so I am going to tread lightly with my answer: yes and no. First of all, comparing “Farrelly Brothers” with “offensive” is like making the connection between “fish” and “water.” With that said, I did find some of the light jabs a tad unnecessary.
As much as I loved watching toothpick-thin Paltrow break apart her chair (I’m sorry — it was funny!), the second occurrence, in which she collapses an entire restaurant booth, was stupid and excessively mean. Furthermore, the film could have done without the constant reference to the correlation between obesity and overeating. Scenes of Paltrow’s character taking half a cake as “one slice” and drinking an entire milkshake in a single gulp are a bit vicious.
Luckily, Paltrow delivers a tremendous performance, and she ultimately redeems the film of its flaws, highlights its achievements and shoots to the ground any nasty stereotypes about obesity. She plays Rosemary as a wounded bird, a shy victim of a world that judges her the moment she enters a room. At the same time, she makes Rosemary incredibly funny and likable; by the end of the movie, you will have fallen in love with her too. It’s an astonishing, utterly convincing physical performance as well: Paltrow carries herself like a 300-pound person would, walking slowly and cautiously, wary of her surroundings. Every movement of her arms and legs takes into account the added weight. Jack Black does a fine job as a leading man, but it’s Paltrow who gives this movie more heart than all other Farrelly Brothers movies combined.
I’ll admit it though: I did miss the gratuitous, immature gross-out comedy of past Farrelly Brothers films. I missed the hair gel, the laxatives, and the dogs on drugs. But “Shallow Hal” is just so damn likable! It does not really need the big laughs; they would almost be out of place. Its message to love someone for who they are, not for what they look like, is so cliched, but the film handles it with ease and charm. It was nice to see that the Farrelly Brothers can show some heart and maturity in their films, even though I hope they never do it again.