The only misstep in the Farrelly brothers’ carefully calculated Shallow Hal is that it naively explains its titular chauvinist’s superficiality as product of saucy father love—a young Hal watches Dad croak but not before the dirty Reverend advises the portly tyke to never settle for routine putang. With his abrasive bud Mauricio (Jason Alexander) in tow, an older Hal (Jack Black) does the Roxbury shtick at the local nightclub. For trolls, their standards are entirely too high, which makes the Farrelly brothers’ experiment all the more palpable. Self-help guru Tony Robbins hypnotizes Hal into seeing women for their inner beauty; the end result isn’t so much a blind taste test for the male pig than it is a subversive jab at the fragile male ego.
Hal’s view of women makes a 180-pound turn. He falls in love with Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), an overweight humanitarian that splits her time between a hospital’s pediatric unit and a local Peace Corps outpost. The Farrellys cleverly position the pair’s courting ritual as an awkward game between a sweetening lothario and a seemingly anorexic beauty. Hal sees rail-thin, everyone else sees behemoth—chairs and benches hysterically crumble beneath Rosemary’s weight yet Hal is none the wiser. The Farrellys fascinatingly complicate Hal’s vision by situating Rosemary as the daughter of his company’s owner. Mauricio thinks he’s crazy and everyone else thinks he’s an opportunistic creep trying to worm his way up the corporate ladder.
More so than There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal is incredibly sweet and humbled by an overwhelming sadness. While everyone’s “you’re being shallow” jargon may be simpleminded to a fault, the Farrellys transcend their “equal-opportunity offenders” status by bravely indicting unusual suspects as instigators of female shame. More important than Rosemary’s low self-esteem is her father’s notion that she is incapable of being loved. As a result, family unwittingly perpetuates the rituals of self-doubt usually blamed on shows like Baywatch and rags like Cosmo. The Farrellys tackle issues of female beauty with incredible humanity without ever being ham-fisted.
The film’s smooth comic pacing is complimented by Russell Carpenter’s spare cinematography, which evokes silent film idiom. The grotesque female grins and cackles are as funny as the jokes that speak for themselves (Hal is wowed by Tony Robbins’s size 17 shoes). Most interesting, though, is how the Farrelly Brothers cunningly challenge the spectator’s gaze just as Hal’s view-askew is nixed by the busybody Mauricio. Hal’s hypo-induced vision is cautiously revealed as an all-encompassing one. The film, in effect, becomes as suspenseful as it is deftly funny—indeed, Shallow merits multiple viewings in order to tease out its sweet ambiguities. If characters in prior Farrelly films were grotesque for grotesque’s sake, Shallow Hal‘s oddballs are odd with due cause. As oblivious participants in the Farrelly brothers’ straight-faced beauty game, Hal and the spectator discover that nothing can ever be taken at face value.