Big laughs and big heart found in 'Shallow Hal'

by Andrea Salas | 11/13/01 6:00am

"Shallow Hal" has all of the classic gags of a Farrelly brothers' film. Something separates it, however, from the purely slapstick and grotesque humor of their prior flicks such as "There's Something About Mary" and "Dumb and Dumber." "Shallow Hal" is surprisingly moving and provides audiences not only with cheap laughs but also with a worthwhile message: that beauty is only skin deep.

Hal (Jack Black) grows up in a promise to fulfill his father's dying wish for him to only date beautiful women regardless of who they are inside. His father's final words of wisdom are, "Find yourself a classic beauty with a perfect can and great totties."

Along with his superficial sidekick Mauricio (Jason Alexander), Hal frequents nightclubs and is as obnoxiously in-your-face (and as turned-down) as Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan in "A Night at the Roxbury." Hal only considers model-gorgeous, firm-bodied women worthy of wanting, and rarely gets to know women for who they are inside because of this flaw.

Only after being trapped in an elevator with real-life TV guru Tony Robbins (playing himself) does Hal change his outlook. Robbins hypnotizes Hal into seeing women for who they really are; cinematically speaking, homely but good-hearted women begin to appear to Hal as supermodels.

Upon parting with Robbins, Hal immedately revels in flirtations with super-model-type strangers who would typically ignore him. His newfound confidence gives him the courage to approach Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Peace Corps volunteer who appears to be a total knockout: tall, blonde, slender and, well, Gwyneth Paltrow. But when the two first meet on the street, the audience can see Rosemary's 300-pound silhouette in a reflective glass window as she walks past.

The film is fueled by Paltrow's reticent beauty; for the most part, her character appears as a perfect 10; she shines onscreen in typical gorgeous Paltrow style. As the movie progresses, we see more and more of the real Rosemary -- that is, Paltrow wearing a 300-pound fat suit. Paltrow, even without the extra poundage, perfectly encompasses the feelings of an uncomfortably obese woman into her size-four frame.

Only when we get a full view of Rosemary's body (in the fat suit) do we understand why she is so insecure. She causes chairs to break on more than one occasion when sitting at restaurants, creates what is practically a tidal wave in the local pool after showing off her cannonball and is noted for ordering largely fattening foods.

The audience is expected to laugh at Rosemary's grotesque acts such as her grabbing a fourth of a chocolate cake with her bare hands as "a bite for the road," but we can't help but feel that this laughter is a bit more than guilty. The magnitude of Rosemary's weight is entirely exaggerated throughout the film; she engulfs an enormous milkshake in less than seven seconds and causes Hal to be hoisted into the air when she sits in the front of the canoe on their second date.

This uncomfortable laughter comes with knowing that in reality that many individuals do look like Rosemary (as we well know, most American women certainly don't look like Gwyneth Paltrow) and obesity is far from uncommon in America.

However, none of these exaggerated scenes are in bad faith; they provide outrageous Farrelly humor to a film with a positive message. What appears to be mere "fat jokes" are actually geared to garner empathy for Rosemary. The Farrelly brothers cause the audience to recognize its own shallowness in its changing regard for Paltrow Rosemary versus Paltrow -plus-180-lbs. Rosemary.

But the bigger joke ends up on jerks like Hal, who is notably average looking and geeky, and Mauricio, who has an Astroturf-like toupee and an unusual bodily defect. The audience sides with Rosemary throughout, and sincerely hopes that this Farrelly flick is not all mockery and is actually out to say something positive. If only Hal will come through.

When Hal's spell is "undone" by Mauricio (who begs Mr. Robbins to take back Hal's "gift" in a mad attempt to win his superficial friend back), Hal dumps Rosemary and avoids looking at her as to not skew his perception of the skinny beauty he saw her as before. Rosemary is crushed, and so are we.

Hal finally looks at Rosemary without what Mauricio calls his "beer-goggle laser surgery" and sees her for who she is -- witty and intelligent with a caring heart. We are left reminded of an important lesson learned back in kindergarten -- true beauty is on the inside.