Shallow Hal (review)

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Shallow Is as Shallow Does

You know what Shallow Hal is? Shallow Hal is the gorgeous, popular guy in high school every insecure, self-conscious, too fat/too skinny/too tall/too short/too plain girl has a crush on. The guy who, suddenly sweet and sensitive, reveals his secret crush on Miss Hopelessly Unpopular right in the middle of the cafeteria, right in front of all his friends, and asks her out, and she — daring to hope — said Yes… and then he laughs in her face. And his friends laugh too. And she’s mortified, and kicks herself mentally for believing him even for a second.
You can’t expect much genuine sweetness and sensitivity from the Brothers Farrelly, whose grimm comedies, like There’s Something About Mary, prey on the hopeless and the hapless and the less than physically perfect… and greater the deviation from perfection, the better. They think they’re trying, I suppose, to include in the great movie family those usually left off the screen — the retarded in Mary, the overweight in Hal — but they can’t resist taking the cheapest, most hypocritical of shots at the very characters they think they’re celebrating. Like that gorgeous, popular guy — who might actually, deep in his secret heart, find something kinda appealing about that too fat/too skinny/too tall/too short/too plain girl — they daren’t show themselves as anything less than the coolest of dudes, daren’t buck popularity. Instead, they play right to the basest instincts of the cafeteria crowd.

Is Hal (Jack Black: Saving Silverman, Jesus’ Son) meant to be a caricature? Here’s a dumpy, dopey pudge of a guy who thinks he deserves nothing less than a supermodel on his arm. But too many men already think they deserve a Cindy Crawford — no matter what they look like themselves or what kind of personality flaws they’re shouldering — to take this as comic exaggeration. What happens to him, though, is definitely fantasy: Self-help guru Tony Robbins (himself) casts a spell on Hal that leaves him able to see only the inner beauty of whomever he looks at.

The inner beauty of some people, that is… generally only when the dichotomy between inner and outer beauty is funny, in the high-school, cafeteria-of-humiliation way. Hal doesn’t see men’s inner beauty unless the model-gorgeous male faces and buff bodies he sees can later be contrasted with off-kilter features and obesity. Otherwise, Hal’s best friend, Mauricio (the increasingly annoying Jason Alexander: The Trumpet of the Swan, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle), would appear to him as hideously freakish as the conniving, money-grubbing babe on the outside, ancient crone on the inside does.

Shallow Hal is a gender-reversed Beauty and the Beast, wherein the “beautiful” boy must learn to love the “beastly” girl. And he does so not by learning to see past physical imperfect but by not seeing it at all. Hal meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow: Bounce, The Talented Mr. Ripley), a drop-dead-gorgeous gal who does not run from his merest glance, which should have been Hal’s first hint that something is not right. Rosemary, of course, is not Gwyneth Paltrow but Gwyneth Paltrow in a Fat Suit, and Paltrow understands the tentative disbelief with which the 350-pound Rosemary would accept any male attention, but the sympathy she brings to the character gets trounced by the Farrellys (with their co-screenwriter Sean Moynihan), who do terrible things to her: Rosemary breaks restaurant chairs with her girth; she asks for “a little sliver” of cake and takes half of it; she asks Hal to “swear to God you’re not gonna laugh” when appearing in her lingerie for him, but the audience is invited to laugh at the size of her undies. Most disturbing, though, is the fact that Rosemary is happy to hang around with Hal, even though his blindness to what people actually look like mostly makes him come off as cruel — her dire loneliness without Hal is meant to be reason enough for her to endure him. Even his few moments of generosity and kindness — which might otherwise let us see Shallow Hal as a more typical Beauty and the Beast, in which she discovers the nuggets of goodness under his crassness — are also the inadvertent result of the spell cast on him. She may not realize that, but we do.

Shallow Hal is still shallow Hal — this hardly changes, until the unconvincing ending, and perhaps not even then. His friends think he’s lost his mind, dancing with all the “dogs” at the nightclub who are kind and sweet and so appear beautiful to him — isn’t it funny how “gorgeous” women are suddenly “ugly” when other people look at them? But nothing in Hal has changed one iota: he’s still judging women exclusively by externals, by how they look, if only to him. Even when the spell is lifted and he now sees Rosemary as she really appears, he complains: “I saw a knockout — I don’t care what anybody else saw!”

In the Farrellys world, inner beauty is the same as outer beauty — otherwise, they’d have found a lovely fat girl to play Rosemary, and they’d have asked the audience, along with Hal, to see her and to accept her for what she really is. But then they’d have had to ask audiences to spend two hours watching a genuinely fat person instead of a slender one in fatface, and they’d have had to stop pretending that they buy into the premise of their own movie: that laughing at someone based on their appearance is wrong, and that we really are more than what we appear.

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