Farrelly Brothers Try for Depth in ‘Shallow Hal’
The Farrelly brothers’ “Shallow Hal” is the darndest thing. As unexpected as Yasser Arafat suddenly breaking into a chorus of “My Yiddishe Mama,” this staggeringly earnest, wholly sentimental film about seeing beyond surface appearances comes from filmmakers you’d hardly expect to persistently appeal to our better natures.
Aren’t these the same Farrellys who’ve made an empire out of bathroom humor? Writer-directors who, in films from the well-named “Dumb and Dumber” through “Me, Myself & Irene,” never met a bodily function they didn’t like or a gross-out situation they didn’t enthusiastically embrace?
So what are brothers Bobby and Peter doing telling the story of Hal Larsen (“High Fidelity’s” Jack Black), the fatuous oaf of the title, a misguided creature who is interested only in beautiful women. He’s therefore primed, the press material solemnly intones, to “learn one of life’s most important lessons” when a bit of brainwashing allows him to see rotund Rosemary Shanahan (Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit) like she was, well, Gwyneth Paltrow unsuited. Darn if I don’t feel a tear coming on.
The truth is, there’s something uncomfortably familiar about having the Farrellys suddenly wandering into three-hanky territory. It’s reminiscent of watching Robin Williams’ entire career turn to mush or hearing about Jerry Lewis’ celebrated unreleased film, “The Day the Clown Cried” and its story of a circus performer used by the Nazis as a concentration camp collaborator. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, some guys pick the wrong times to go soft.
Maybe the Farrellys and their colleagues are simply wanting to tell us that we shouldn’t judge them by appearances, either. Maybe the Farrellys see themselves as modern-day versions of grand opera’s celebrated clowns, laughing on the outside but crying on the inside. Why, they might be asking, should they have to leave moral uplift and instruction to the Steven Spielbergs of the world?
The problem is not that the Farrellys want to be telling us that “the brain sees what the heart wants it to feel,” it’s that they can’t do it successfully. Created in the broadest strokes imaginable, “Shallow Hal” lacks even a vestige of subtlety and is rarely so much as amusing. Viewers with fond memories of the brothers’ wildly funny “There’s Something About Mary” will be astonished at how few laughs the current venture has.
Even more schizophrenic for a film intent on convincing us that, yes, fat people are people, too, “Shallow Hal” is rife with obesity jokes. Furniture is constantly collapsing under poor Rosemary’s extended bulk; her dive into a swimming pool creates a wave that would unnerve Noah; and her healthy appetite is always good for a putative chuckle.
There was a time when skirt-chasing Hal would never have looked twice at Rosemary. But then one afternoon he gets trapped in an elevator with positive-thinking guru Tony Robbins (playing himself). Even Tony, who’s seen a lot, is flabbergasted at Hal’s shallowness, so he in effect hypnotizes the unsuspecting guy so that when he looks at people, what he sees is their internal beauty, not the worthless dross of their surface appearance. Which is how he comes to see hefty Rosemary, who just happens to be his boss’ daughter, as the queen of hotties.
Naturally, all of Hal’s friends and co-workers, especially best pal Mauricio (Jason Alexander), think he’s delusional. And both Rosemary and her parents need to be convinced that her new suitor is not a cynical opportunist who’s only thinking about his career. But Hal, like the film he’s in (written by Sean Moynihan and the Farrellys), is nothing if not woefully sincere.
Even if it didn’t feature nonactor Rene Kirby, a cheerful young man with spina bifida who walks on all fours, in a key cameo role (don’t ask), “Shallow Hal” would count as one of the year’s more unusual films. It’s odd enough to unnerve stars Black and Paltrow, both of whom look like they’re not sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s a sentiment this film’s audience is likely to share.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language and sexual content. Times guidelines: less raunch than usual, but still a noticeable amount.
Gwyneth Paltrow: Rosemary
Jack Black: Hal
Jason Alexander: Mauricio
Joe Viterelli: Steve Shanahan
Rene Kirby: Walt
A Conundrum Entertainment production, released by 20th Century Fox. Directors Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly. Producers Bradley Thomas, Charles B. Wessler, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly. Screenplay Sean Moynihan, Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter. Editor Christopher Greenbury. Costumes Pamela Withers. Music Ivy Production. Design Sidney J. Bartholomew Jr. Art director Arlan Jay Vetter. Set decorator Scott Jacobson. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
In general release.