Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Written by Sean Moynihan and the Farrelly brothers
With Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jason Alexander
How easy would it be to produce a screenplay about a racist white man who falls in love with a black woman who momentarily looks white to him, and following lots of jokes about Ebonics, watermelon and fried chicken, comes to learn a Valuable Lesson About Tolerance And Diversity? (Even a film as serious as John Cassavetes' SHADOWS, which depicts a white man's reaction to the discovery of his very light-skinned black girlfriend's race, might run into trouble.) How about one in which a homophobe comes under the spell of an elixir that makes all men look like women to him, thus leading him to falling in love with a man? After a trip to Fire Island where he takes Ecstasy, dances all night to house music and catches Judy Garland and Bette Midler impersonators, he discovers the truth and learns another Valuable Lesson that the inner person counts, rather than his gender. In the days of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and PARTNERS, this might've passed muster, but I'd like to hope that even THE BIRDCAGE team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May would steer clear now.
However, fat minstrelsy is as alive and well - and as culturally acceptable - as blackface was 90 years ago, and the trailer of SHALLOW HAL is as sexist as the above premises are racist and homophobic. My friends obviously aren't its target audience: I can't remember the last film that's inspired so much contempt sight unseen. Surprisingly, almost all its fat jokes appear in the trailer. The actual film is far less offensive than its marketing. My reasons for disliking it are more aesthetic than political: it's too long, technically sloppy (the Farrelly brothers' eye for framing and ear for sound design actually seems to go downhill with each film they make), not funny enough and overly earnest.
SHALLOW HAL opens with Hal as a boy (already rather chubby) in a hospital corridor outside his father's deathbed. A minister, his father is so zonked out on morphine that most of what he says doesn't make sense, but he gives his son some advice that Hal will take way too seriously: don't settle for "routine poontang" and don't marry for love. In the second scene, a grown-up Hal (Black) and his friend Mauricio (Alexander, whose spray-on hair looks like a misplaced yarmulke) are at a dance club, trying to pick up women. All of them look like supermodels, and all give the two men the cold shoulder. However, this doesn't deter them. Despite his seemingly high confidence, Hal is let down by his neighbor , who "breaks up" with him after one date. Meanwhile, Mauricio decides to leave his girlfriend because one of her toes is slightly longer than the rest. All this changes when Hal gets stuck in an elevator with self-help guru Tony Robbins (played by himself.) Robbins decides to liberate him from his shallow notions of physical beauty and allow him to see everyone's "inner beauty." Consequently, the number of attractive women Hal sees skyrockets. He starts dating Rosie (Paltrow), a 300-pound woman whom he perceives as the real, thin Paltrow, even though chairs keep collapsing under her, but everyone else sees as obese.
All along, the Farrelly brothers' films have both mocked and pandered to male sexual anxieties. Here, they mock far more than they pander: the first half hour's treatment of Hal and Mauricio is quite scathing. It's noteworthy that in the ad for SHALLOW HAL, Black's shadow looks almost twice as large as the photo of Paltrow's body. (His appetite is only a little smaller than Rosie's: in fact, he finds it refreshing to date a woman who can eat as much as he does.) Neither Black or Alexander appear to skip too many meals or spend much time at the gym, yet Hal and Mauricio regard any woman who weighs more than 120 pounds as obese and expect everyone who does fit their standards to jump into bed with them. Just in case we didn't get the point, Robbins even gives Mauricio a Feminism 101 lecture saying that men have been brainwashed by the media into accepting a narrow, arbitrary definition of beauty.
The Farrelly brothers know men and their foibles pretty well. I'm less certain about how well they know women. As with the female characters in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and ME, MYSELF & IRENE, they idealize Rosie to a ludicrous extent. It's not enough that she's nice, but she must also be a borderline saint: a volunteer in a pediatric burn ward who's waiting for her African enlistment in Peace Corps to come through. (Granted, they suggest that her behavior is a way of compensating for her weight.) Still, Paltrow's performance is surprisingly nuanced, preventing Rosie from becoming a one-note caricature. Most of the fat jokes are countered with a pained reaction shot. In fact, SHALLOW HAL isn't really a comedy. For once, the Farrelly brothers' mix of gross-out and sweetness has settled on the latter. I've always found this mixture awkward, but erring on the side of sentimentality makes it worse. Hal and Mauricio both wind up learning a Valuable Lesson : they're both imperfect member of a world where the vast majority of people don't look like movie stars or models. The film has the soul of an Afterschool Special, coupled to the conviction that it's really hip and politically incorrect.
There's something defensive about SHALLOW HAL, almost as if it were made in anticipation of charges of mocking its characters. (Can a Farrelly brothers remake of the kung fu classic THE CRIPPLED AVENGERS be far behind?) Even at their best, they've never matched the satirical acumen of SOUTH PARK or the Oedipal anger of Tom Green's TV show, but the populism implicit in their earlier films comes to the fore now. However, it feels forced in a way that it never did before. At least Mary's mentally challenged brother got to kick some ass. Here, Walt - a handsome, successful businessman whose spina bifida doesn't get in the way of his love life - and the children of the burn ward are just lovable geeks. (We only get to see the children's real faces after viewing them through Hal's rose-colored vision earlier.) This isn't particularly offensive, as Hal and Mauricio eventually reveal themselves to be lovable geeks too, but it lets the spectator off the hook too easily.
The early scenes of Rosie and Hal's courtship touch on something that's
not so lovable: the disjunction between our real bodies and our mental
images of ourselves. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz has observed,
"popular culture, the Farrellys suggest, makes all Americans live outside
themselves and reject our true natures. We have to see ourselves as beautiful
people, otherwise we feel like losers...There are millions of thin women
who look in the mirror and see Rosie staring back at them." SHALLOW HAL
grapples with this very real dilemma, but the Farrelly brothers still aren't
skillful enough to get a handle on it. Casting aside their comic impulses
may have handicapped them: black comedy strikes me as the only way to do
justice to the absurdities of Hal and Rosie's lives.