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'Hal' pleasantly shallow
on October 18, 2004
First published Stanford Daily, Nov 2001.
The Farrelly brothers have done it again. From the makers of such outré comedies as "There's Something About Mary" and "Me, Myself and Irene" comes "Shallow Hal," a comedy with a conscience. Known for movies that feature imperfect men lusting after gorgeous girls with a few laughs thrown in for good measure, the brothers delve a bit deeper this time, seeking to convince us that fat is fun. Jack Black (the crazy music store employee in "High Fidelity") is Hal, a shallow male (if you'll pardon the redundancy) of modest looks, besotted with breasts and waiflike figures. He prefers a girl with just one large breast to one with half a brain. Needless to say, in the true Farrelly tradition, Hal is a loser when it comes to girls.
Hal's messiah is Tony Robbins, the self-help guru who achieves the impossible and makes him see inner beauty. Ergo, Hal moves in a haze, stripping fat women of the excess padding, glossing over manly moustaches etc., to visualize them as the epitome of pulchritude. One such beneficiary of Hal's x-ray vision is Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), who trades her corsets from "Shakespeare in Love" and "Emma" for a fat suit. Despite being well over 300 pounds and gluttonously devouring any source of fat within range, Hal can only see her as the nubile nymphet of his dreams. His consternation at being in a minority of one in his admiration is palpable. Eventually the blinkers fall off, courtesy his shallower pal, the meddling Mauricio (Jason Alexander). The crux of the film lies in how Hal confronts the fat in his femme fatale.
Black's virtuoso performance as Hal makes us squirm. Rosemary, with the fat suit, is ponderously poignant. She shames us with her starkly evident low self-esteem and tame acceptance of stereotypical notions of what passes off as beauty. If only her character had more flesh than fat, the full range of emotions that obese people experience could have been hung out to dry. By resorting to stilted portrayals in black and white of fat people being angelic do-gooders while ugly non-fat people (the ones in this film, barring Jill, can't be called slim), are shallow shysters, the many shades of gray in between are ignored.
Paltrow took a stroll in a New York hotel with the fat suit on, and has been quoted as saying that "...no one was making eye contact with me, or would even look in my direction. No one wanted to connect with me. It was a profound, very sad and startling experience." Some of that sadness is revealed in her portrayal of Rosemary. However, it would however, be a safer bet that UFOs would land at Stanford than to hope that Hollywood would make us laugh and cry in the same movie.
Paltrow looks as radiant as ever. Rather strangely, she reminds one of Phoebe (of "Friends" fame) when she attempts to be goofy. Jack Black has the makings of a star. His Hal is a flawed bungler who is redeemed solely by an inner core of middle-American harmlessness. Rene Kirby as Walt is a casting coup. His joie de vivre is at the heart of the movie's message. Kirby, an ex-IBM employee, was discovered by the Farrellys in a bar in Burlington, as he plodded along on all fours (owing to spina bifida). The character was specifically written for him. Jason Alexander, chubbier than ever, does not disappoint as Mauricio.
The Farrellys have been known for at least one memorable cinematic moment in their movies - most notable of course, Ben Stiller's nuts and bolt coming in the way of his zipper, and Cameron Diaz's organic hair gel in "There's Something About Mary." This one has a twist in the tail. Eminently enjoyable.