Under the Influence

Spellbound in Shallow Hal

Shallow Hal is your mother's Farrelly Brothers movie, an old-fashioned romantic comedy bearing the message that your parents, assuming they were up to the job, drilled into you: handsome is as handsome does; beauty is skin-deep; it's character, not packaging, that matters. Except that the movie also makes much of one stupendously fat woman and other peculiarly proportioned people, including a grown man with spina bifida who walks on all fours and hails a woman with the greeting "At your cervix."

Business as usual? Not quite. Light on sexual innuendo and bodily-function yuks—a discretion for which it has been rewarded with a PG-13—Shallow Hal is Shrek for grown-ups, a fairy tale right down to its reverse-Cinderella plot, which turns on a frog prince who, under the influence of a spell, sees his princess for both what she is (smart, funny, brave) and what she's not (thin, gorgeous). When the scales fall from Hal's eyes, he faces the kind of dilemma commonly encountered on after-school specials.

Hal Larsen (Jack Black), who's no Adonis himself and who comes burdened with sorely deficient parental models, is squandering his life with his even-less-prepossessing friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) in futile pursuit of beautiful women who won't give them the time of day. An impromptu hypnosis session with outsize motivational guru Tony Robbins, who mugs himself with the happy cluelessness that clings to every non-actor lucky enough to be roped into a Farrelly movie, results in Hal waking up to the inner grace of those around him—which, being shallow, he sees as physical beauty. Thus does his boss's daughter, Rosemary, visible to us as a whopping 300-pounder with giant hams for legs and droopy jowls where all four cheeks should be, appear to him as Gwyneth Paltrow. Lard becomes Paltrow: the fat suit in which she intermittently appears simultaneously sets off and liberates her from the insipid fairyland glow that has trapped her for most of her career. Large or small, Rosemary is a catch, and Paltrow plays her with a casual gallantry that extends to performing her own stunts.

Both Paltrow and Black, who's tamped way down from his hysterical music-store clerk in High Fidelity, obey the basic rule of Farrelly comedy, which requires that actors play outrageous situations absolutely straight. That's what makes the Farrellys' movies at once so funny, so humane and, against all odds, so believable. In There's Something About Mary, you had permission to split your sides over the electrocution of a dog so long as it occurred within the context of a genuinely percolating romance between Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz. The only Farrelly film that didn't work for me was Me, Myself and Irene, and then only because Jim Carrey, forever stuck in full throttle, is the only Farrelly lead who's incapable of convincing an audience that he's a real person, let alone someone you could actually like. There's a sweet-tempered egalitarianism to the Farrelly Brothers' work coupled with an anarchic joy in taking material from wherever it presents itself. Shallow Hal was written with the Farrellys by Sean Moynihan, a retired software-marketing executive with whom they'd struck up a correspondence. Unlike Carrey or his fellow trampler on bourgeois refinement Eddie Murphy, the Farrellys contrive to be gross without being mean. Walt, the man with spina bifida, is played by a retired IBM executive who really has the condition, and one of the movie's most delightful jokes is not that Walt walks on all fours, but that he's the movie's only superstud, beloved of every woman he meets.

Whether Shallow Hal has legs comparable to Shrek's remains to be seen. Those gross-out freaks for whom a Farrelly film lives or dies by the composition of Cameron Diaz's hair gel may feel that this time the brothers have let the side down. But then, that demographic is unlikely under any conditions to warm to the argument advanced in Shallow Hal and Shrek, that a woman doesn't have to turn herself into a rake in order to love and be loved. Anorexics take note—and take popcorn.

Shallow Hal was directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly; written by Sean Moynihan and the Farrellys; produced by Bradley Thomas, Charles B. Wessler and the Farrellys; and stars Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jason Alexander. Now playing countywide.

 
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