The Farrelly brothers have redefined "lowest common denominator" over the years with films like Dumb and Dumber. Recently, they’ve made an attempt to move away from the scatological and more towards the mainstream with pictures like Outside Providence and Osmosis Jones. Their latest effort Shallow Hal is an example of a kinder, gentler Farrelly production – it’s their sweetest, quietest, and most low-key film to date. Unfortunately it’s probably also their least substantial, a one-note comedy that soon wears out its welcome.
Hal Larsen (Jack Black) is the ultimate shallow male. To him, beauty is barely skin deep – he won’t even look at a woman unless she’s got supermodel looks, her brains and attitude be damned. That all changes when he’s trapped in an elevator with motivational guru Anthony Robbins, who sees that Hal’s focusing on all the wrong things with the women he dates. He conducts an intervention and convinces Hal that in the future he will only see a person’s inner beauty, not their outer selves. Hal then meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a rather large but saintly social worker with the proverbial heart of gold. The rest of the world sees Rosemary as 300+ pound woman. But Hal sees… well, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Hal’s friends (most notably Jason Alexander, in an over the top and annoying performance) can’t believe that the heretofore supremely superficial Hal would be interested in what they all see as an overweight and unattractive person, and its their reactions and double-takes that provide the bulk of Shallow Hal’s humor. If "fat" seems like a particularly thin (and offensive) premise for a film, you’re right. But the film’s problems are deeper (or maybe shallower) than that. The film’s trailer makes it look as if the entire picture is a series of fat gags, and given the Farrelly brothers’ previous level of sophistication that’s easy to believe. The Dumb and Dumber era Farrellys might even have been able to pull that off.
But the shots of Paltrow clad in her "fat suit" make up a very small proportion of the film. The bulk of it (so to speak) are scenes of Hal and Rosemary having sweet yet ultimately innocuous conversations, the kind that couples have while they’re in the process of falling in love. Hal’s character is transformed in an instant early on and never changes much throughout, so the film is mainly one episode after another where Hal encounters someone that the world has rejected because of external aberrance but he’s now able to accept because of his newly acquired innocent eyes. This may make for a charming individual scene or two but not a particularly humorous or entertaining story.
Prejudice against overweight people isn’t the only thing with which the film deals; there are other cosmetic deficiencies that Hal’s newfound perspective allows him to overlook, and there’s even a scene where he sees an externally beautiful person as a haggard crone due to her barren personality. In typical Farrelly fashion there are a few things here that you’ll see in no other film, namely a character with Spina Bifida (thankfully, not played for laughs) and one with a vestigial tail. But given the straightforward way the rest of the film is presented these inclusions seem even more jarring than usual. Overall, Shallow Hal makes a very simple point very early on and then does nothing but repeat it.It’s a film that lives up to its title, an inch wide and an inch deep.
– Bob Aulert