When Hal (Jack Black) was 9, his beloved father died but before he passed away, the old man had time to make his boy promise him one last thing: to not settle for average, and only pursue “hot young tail”. Now all grown up, Hal does just that, judging women solely by their looks and treating them as sex objects. Then one day, he has another influential conversation, this time with TV self-help guru Anthony Robbins (playing himself), who hypnotises him so he’ll only see women’s inner beauty. Thus here he goes flirting with girls he wouldn’t even have had a second thought for before, to the great dismay of his best buddy in bigotry, Mauricio (Jason Alexander). More so, Hal falls in love with fun-loving Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), aware only of what a great personality and a big heart she has. How will he feel when he realises that’s she actually weighs 300 pounds?
I did not want to see this movie. The trailer was horrible. It made the film look like a beyond mediocre comedy, with a premise that seemed not only silly but offensive. Guy is “cursed” into finding fat women hot. Oh, so we get to laugh at all the fatties and how ridiculous it would be to actually love one because, gasp, she’s a good person. And Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit? *sigh* Not only did I not laugh once during the trailer, I found some of the jokes so lame that I wanted to avoid seeing the movie just to not have to watch them again. Fat Gwyneth jumps in pool, big splash, little kid is thrown into a tree. *long sigh* Okay, so I ended up seeing the movie anyways. Why, you ask ? Well, first there’s the fact that it’s directed by the Farrelly brothers, whose every film from “Dumb & Dumber” to “Me, Myself & Irene” has made me laugh hard and often. I figured that there had to be some funnies in their latest. And then there’s Jack Black.
Who? JB! Wonderboy! I’m in awe of this guy. I’ve discovered him only last year in “High Fidelity”, in which he stole every scene. Then I saw him in “Saving Silverman” a comedy which, while uneven, had its share of guffaws, many of them thanks to JB. What really made Black a god in my book though is my discovery of his band, Tenacious D. The idea of two overweight, average looking dudes with acoustic guitars proclaiming themselves the greatest band on earth is amusing, but as funny as their CD and their live gigs can be, what’s really surprising is how hard they really rock! When he’s on, Black has the presence of a Jim Morrison, no kidding, you can’t take your eyes off him! And that, my loyal readers, is why I paid good money to see a movie which I wasn’t interested in seeing at all.
Now here’s the funny thing: the movie was surprisingly good. I’m even tempted to say great, but I’ll need another watching or two to confirm my initial reaction. The fatty jokes from the trailer? Barely a few minutes of the running length. Turns out the movie isn’t mocking overweight people, it’s saying OK, some people are big, get over it. They can be as smart, funny and lovable as anyone. Through its protagonist who sees beyond appearances, “Shallow Hal” makes you realise that you should really take the time to know people before saying they’re “not your type”. Beforehand, I deemed the premise hypocritical and artificial, i.e. what good is it if you get to love “ugly” people only by thinking they’re pretty and thin? There’s no worth in being brainwashed into being less shallow, right ? Well, as the film aptly retorts, everyone’s already brainwashed by TV, magazines and movies into thinking teenage anorexics are ideals. Tony Robbins and the movie are only levelling the field for Hal, so he can see past his shallow instincts.
What makes it work for the audience is that by showing us Rosemary looking gorgeous like Gwyneth Paltrow, the picture also makes us not reduce her to her extra pounds. We kind of forget that and get lost in the cutesy love story. We fall for Rosemary along with Hal, we find her cool and interesting and funny, we think they make a nice couple. By the time Hal -and us- finally see her as her natural, wider self, we are able to get past that. She’s still Rosemary, we still love her, and we still want our lovers to get their happy ending. When have the manipulative mechanics of romantic comedies ever been used to communicate such a potent lesson?
“Shallow Hal” confirms something I suspected about Peter and Bobby Farrelly, that they’re not about gross-out humor as much as they’re about heart. The recurring themes in their filmography are not merely bodily fluids and functions but love and friendship. What makes their movies succeed in the end, I think, is that they’re about often unusual people making good together. We’ve seen sympathetic characters in their films who were dumb (and dumber), bowling players, Amish, retarded, handicapped, schizophrenic, albino, overweight. Sure, they have jokes about these differences, but it’s not mean, it’s like they only want to include them in the comedy, to judge everyone fair game. Take Walt, a supporting character in “Hal” who’s afflicted with spina bifida, which restrains him to walk on all four. Actor Rene Kirby’s condition is sometimes played for laughs, but what comes through mostly is how happy and fulfilled he seems, and how he’d be the first to take a crack at himself. This reminds me of an anecdote told by legendary French Canadian comedy group Rock et Belles Oreilles in their DVD anthology. They talk about how, after a skit in which they played blind hockey players aired, the Association for the Blind not only didn’t protest but they gave them an award! I guess people prefer to be included in good humor than be taken in pity.
But I’m getting sappy here: it *is* the Farrellys we’re talking about, and they still have a knack for making you laugh hard. They’re not filmmaking visionaries, but their movies have a smooth flow, bright visuals and consistently enjoyable alt pop soundtracks. They also get solid work from their actors. Jack Black, of course, rocks. He might not have conventional leading man good looks, but his natural charisma more than makes up for it and, dare I say, that makes him sexy. He’s got some really funny men-behaving-badly scenes with Jason Alexander, playing a rowdier, dumber George Costanza with sprayed on hair, and he actually has chemistry with Paltrow. She really shines in the film, endearingly playing as insecure and self-conscious. You just want to hug her, with or without the fat suit (which doesn’t look as grotesque as it could have, thankfully).
So there you have it. Yes, “Shallow Hal” ‘s marketing campaign made it look unfunny and offensive but as it nicely reminds us itself, you shouldn’t pass judgement on appearances alone. While it’s quite often hilarious, it’s not the Farrelly’s funniest, but it’s probably their most mature, heartfelt movie.