***½/**** Image A+ Sound A- Extras B-
starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jack Black, Jason Alexander, Jimmy Badstibner
screenplay by Sean Moynihan & Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly
directed by Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly
by Walter Chaw Sadness saturates every frame of Peter and Bobby Farrelly's Shallow Hal like a melancholy tune. It seeps into the corners of a scene--into the wounded eyes of a young woman who has never been asked for her phone number and the wary acceptance of a compliment by someone accustomed to casual abuse. The premise of the film is deceptively simple: an extremely shallow man, the titular Hal (Jack Black), is given the ability by self-help guru Tony Robbins to see the "inner beauty" of people. This means that suddenly for Hal, many beautiful people appear ugly and many physically-unattractive people gorgeous. Some folks remain unchanged. In the case of the guarded and acerbic 300 lb Rosemary, she resembles Gwyneth Paltrow in Hal's eyes.
The Farrellys are as guilty as anyone of perpetuating detrimental images of feminine beauty. Their films to a one deal with unattractive dimwits infatuated with impossibly beautiful women who, in the case of their most famous inamorata (Cameron Diaz's Mary in There's Something About Mary), assists the learning disabled and counts "SportsCenter" as her favourite show. At some point, however, the perfection of the Farrellys' love objects becomes a joke. There's Something About Mary can arguably be read as a spoof of the ways in which men idealize women. With Shallow Hal, the first of many levels of complexity is embedded in the Farrellys' own willingness to examine the fallout from the same veneration of women of which they themselves are guilty--and to in essence skewer themselves for that instinct, revealing an understanding that men in need of trophies are often trying to disguise their own shortcomings.
Because Hal sees size-2 Gwyneth Paltrow and not size-60 Rosemary, Hal suspects that Rosemary is anorexic when she takes flattery about her appearance as sarcastic and cruel. It is a marvellously tricky conceit that doubles the edge of the satire, one the Farrellys carry to fruition when Hal upbraids Rosemary's powerful father for being dissatisfied with the things he thinks must reflect his own success. When Hal comments to Rosemary's slim mother, "Wow, now I see where Rosemary gets her figure!" the discomfort of the situation is obvious, but again, the Farrellys deliciously complicate their message by later revealing that Rosemary's mother is also morbidly obese.
Examine this by itself: First you are presented with a recognizable comedic situation in which a slim woman is unhappy about being favourably compared to an obese woman, and then you are quietly presented with a far thornier situation in which an obese woman resents the same comparison. Complicating things, Hal's friends think that he's trying to climb the corporate ladder by dating the boss's ugly-duckling daughter, and his best friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) is desperate to show Hal the "error" of his ways. Shallow Hal is much more than a series of politically-correct cheap shots at its audience--dismissing it as such would be as misguided as, yes, judging a book by its cover.
The rarest of films linger--they challenge the viewer to an active viewership during their running time and prove sticky long after the curtain falls. Mulholland Drive is such a film, so is Memento: both undermine our confidence in self-image and "reality." Add to that subversive list Shallow Hal. Thought-provoking and sensitive, it's an intelligent and affecting exploration of image-bound loneliness played with wrenching transparency by Black and especially Paltrow. Neither Black nor Paltrow were ever cast better: he as a sweet but hopeless lothario, she as a someone uneasy about her perceived beauty. Take note of Paltrow's careful movements and blossoming self-confidence: heartbreaking.
When a Farrelly Brothers film works, it works because of a foundation of kindness--something that imitators in the gross-out genre often forget to incorporate into their Farrelly knock-offs. Shallow Hal, though it has its share of gags, is the least slapstick of the Farrellys' oeuvre. It's a deficiency more than made up for by the film's subtly incisive observation, the mark of mature comedy. Originally published: November 9, 2001.
by Bill Chambers The Farrelly Brothers contribute a nigh unlistenable commentary to the Fox DVD release of their sweet, underrated Shallow Hal. Here's a suggestion, fellas: record two commentary tracks from now on, one in which you regard the film in question, the other reserved for FotFBs (Friends of the Farrelly Brothers), who will get something out of your constant citations. In Shallow Hal's improbably tender prologue, the Farrellys tell us not about anything happening on-screen or even behind the camera, but that the man playing the doctor holds down a day job at Home Depot. Throughout Shallow Hal and in the deleted scenes section, they interrupt or talk over each other to give credit to every last background actor; because of this, an omitted keg-party sequence is especially migraine-inducing. Once out of bit players, the pair move on to stand-ins and second-unit crew members. It gets old fast, and after experiencing the same frustrations with their Kingpin and There's Something About Mary yakkers, I vow to never listen to another Farrelly Brothers slideshow special again. Charitable though it may seem, their spotting technique is actually quite "Hal," since it presumes value and viewer interest in two hours of 'so-and-so hails from Providence and has appeared in X many movies.'
Shallow Hal is presented in a striking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on DVD with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. A switch in cinematographers from the bland Mark Irwin to the meticulous Russell Carpenter (Charlie's Angels and Titanic) resulted in a crisp image that exports to the format well; audio is quite spirited whenever the action steps inside a dance club, although LFE usage stays mild at best from start to finish. Supplements additional to the feature commentary and eleven deleted scenes include four featurettes: an HBO making-of hosted by Shallow Hal co-star Brooke Burns that's interspersed with man-on-the-street interviews in which she asks Hollywood residents what they consider to be shallow; Comedy Central's "Reel Comedy: Shallow Hal", wherein mostly Jack Black rehashes the film's plot for us, sometimes putting on a funny voice to do so; "Seeing Through the Layers" (or "Seeing Through the Make-Up"), an excellent documentary on Tony Gardner's make-up effects that recounts, like the aforementioned HBO special, Gwyneth Paltrow's eye-opening first time in the prosthetics; and "In at the Deep End, with Shallow Hal" (or "Shallow Hal, in at the Deep End"), a step-by-step piece on the complex execution of Rosemary's big splash.
The Shelby Lynne video "Wall in Your Heart," a Shallow Hal music promo, trailers for Shallow Hal, Minority Report, Unfaithful, The Banger Sisters, and "The Farrelly Brother's" (sic)--i.e. a 30-second reminder that Fox also distributes There's Something About Mary, Me, Myself & Irene, and the Farrelly-produced Say It Isn't So--round out the disc. Have we mentioned that Shallow Hal is a terrific movie? Originally published: June 9, 2002.
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