The Farrelly brothers are most successful when they tell the tale of a lovable loser after creating a seemingly fictional world where he is abused all in the name of a laugh. After playing with that formula in Kingpin and perfecting it with There’s Something About Mary and Me, Myself and Irene, they move away from it in their latest effort, and it shows.
While there is still the accustomed show-stopping sight gag, circus-freak cast member and jokes that bend the extreme of absurdity, Peter and Bobby Farrelly attempt to add a little heart here, as well. It’s a sign they are trying to be all things to all people. That and the fact they’ve resorted to a PG-13 romantic comedy, rather than the usual R-rated gross-out spectacle, prove becoming a sellout isn’t bad for two guys with a twisted sense of humor and a knack for impeccable comic timing.
But their fans don’t want to see Jack Black fall in love with Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit. And that’s what it boils down to. Not the fact that Shallow Hal, with its well-balanced meal of sweet and raunchy treats, is actually quite funny at times – but that its message is not.
“Could someone love a funny, nice and intelligent woman … if she weighed 350 pounds?”
Shallow Hal poses this question with sincerity, yet places it smack dead in the middle of a film that transitions one scene to the next with a fat joke.
And the problem is, it doesn’t work.
In the film, Hal (Black) and Mauricio (Jason Alexander) are two losers who place false importance on a female’s exterior even though they concede attractive women aren’t as smart as the average female. In Hal’s futile quest to find the perfect woman, friends and co-workers chastise him for being shallow. All that changes when he runs into a self-help guru who alters his perception.
Now, Hal talks to beautiful women and comes off as the charmer he always imagined himself to be. However, we are privy to what Hal can’t see – these seemingly gorgeous women are actually the outcasts of society.
The fact that these candidates for jumpers off the ugly tree – whom we only see glimpses of when the point of view switches to another character in the film – seem desperate isn’t consistent with the overall message here. It seems the Farrellys are talking out of both sides of their mouths, with one side saying, “beauty is only skin deep” and the other saying, “fat chicks can’t get dates.” Again, this wouldn’t be so upsetting if it only set out to serve as a gross-out comedy.
So, one of Hal’s newfound desires looks like Paltrow, only written to sound more intelligent if also self-conscious, and they fall for each other. Paltrow’s plump Rosemary is prone to break chairs and booths at restaurants and send children flying into the air with diving cannonballs in swimming pools.
What it must be like to live like Hal – to have the ability to see the person on the inside and only see those attractive qualities translated to society’s standard of beauty. There is a positive note for this approach: Hal sees the ugliness in some people on the outside, as well.
But these types of messages, which are noble, as well as necessary sometimes, should be saved for a sequel to It’s A Wonderful Life. In the meantime, movies like Shallow Hal should stick to the jokes and revel in their offensiveness. If the Farrellys knew the only way they could have gotten away with this movie would have been to slap a sentimental seal on it, they should have scrapped it to begin with. But because they didn’t, the ploy comes across as cheap as the original gag itself.
American Pie ran into the same problem with finding the right balance between endearing and obscene and came up looking like a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. While the sequel chose the sex-obsessed angle instead, its success was overshadowed by its unoriginality.
The Farrellys could have learned from their pupils but instead regressed to selling out.
- Shallow Hal is Rated PG-13