The Farrelly Brothers don’t exactly make movies for the politically-correct-minded. They’re crass, over-the-top, sometimes uncomfortable, and crude. They are also warm-hearted, well-intentioned, sweet and often, pretty darned funny. They’ve had plenty of detractors and few critics have embraced their style, but they find a fit for the audience they’re after, and consistently deliver what they promise. Such is the case with the 2001 comedy Shallow Hall, a movie that on the surface looks like it would be hopelessly offensive but manages to come out a positive experience with some genuine performances, let alone being one of the least “vulgar” films in their collection.
We meet Hal (Jack Black), a young man who was told as a child by his dying father (Bruce McGill) that nothing else matters but being with as many hot women as possible. Great cans and perfect tatas. That’s the meaning of life. Hal takes this as gospel and has grown up wildly superficial, and as the title implies, incredibly shallow. He rates women only by how they look and of course has had little luck, despite his almost energetic optimism. He pals around with Mauricio (Jason Alexander), a chap with fake hair and an equally awful sense of judgement towards the opposite sex (taking a page from Alexander’s Seinfeld plots, he is turned off by a stupendously beautiful woman (Manon von Gerkan) because she has one small “flaw”).
Meeting famed real-life self-help guru Tony Robbins in an elevator one day, Hal is transformed when Robbins manages to make him see only the beauty within a woman, externalized by what Hal considers ultra hot. Hal begins to see women for who they are, not what they look like, though to him, that means there are a lot of incredible looking supermodels he’s suddenly meeting. One of them is Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is three-hundred pounds but to Hal looks like, well, Gwyneth Paltrow circa 2001. Smokin’ hot. He’s instantly smitten and convinces her to start dating. Hal is in heaven, believing he’s with one of the great beauties of his life, even as everyone around him, most especially Mauricio, tells him he’s dating a “cow.” I mentioned the crass part, right?
Okay, you can probably see where this is going from a mile away, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The lessons learned here are as transparent as clean glass on a sunny day, but it works because we believe in Hal, made authentic by Black. He really is the right fit, charming, spastic, honest, and what we don’t expect, sensitive. The smart move here is that Hal is never a bad guy, just misguided, the opening moments with his dad – a pastor of all things – crucial in putting responsibility for his actions in the right place (look for a brief cameo by the great Molly Shannon as well). Black is matched by Paltrow, who of course has never really experienced life as a three hundred pound woman, and it’s never really made all that believable she represents what that means. However, for the film, Paltrow is warm and humble, making Rosemary, no matter her size, someone Hal could and should be drawn to. We all are.
That said, I will say that the best moment in all this is a wonderful scene without Paltrow. It’s set at a dance club fairly early on after Hal has undergone his transformation. He’s with Mauricio, as usual, and he sees a red-headed stunner standing next to him. She’s alone, unbelievably, and so introduces himself, asking her to dance. She excitedly accepts. That’s a change right there, he believes. Soon, he’s on the floor with her friends, two drop-dead beauties pressing themselves to him with great passion. Hal is in heaven, his dream come true, flailing in glee, not with one, not with two, but with three gorgeous girls are all over him. It is, for him, the culmination of everything his father demanded of him.
Then Mauricio spots him. Looking down from the second floor, he sees his best friend not with supermodels, but with three socially stigmatized “ugly” women. They are ghastly in Mauricio’s eyes, as with most who see them, one extraordinarily heavy, the other flopping about like demented freaks. He rushes in to try and rescue Hal, dragging him away from the embarrassing social faux pas. But … Hal is undeterred, and abandons his friend and jumps back with the girls. He’s having fun and that’s all that matters. That last part is what this means most.
This moment is a perfect callback to a scene at the start of the movie, when we meet the grown Hal for the first time. He’s in the same club, dancing as happily as a guy could dance, bouncing from one astonishingly beautiful woman to the next, each repulsed by his tactics and come on strategy. He is, in this sequence, the shallow Hal we expect him to be. He’s undeterred and confident but there’s a see-through quality about him that is easy to spot. He’s a guy on the make, looking to hook up.
Compare that to the same thing he’s doing with the “ugly” girls and perhaps with a glance, it looks and feels the same, but there is a subtle difference that Black captures so well. He’s free of the burden it takes in seeking flawlessness, let loose of the weight he’s been carrying, demanding so much of the women he wants to be with. All this new Hal can see is what lies under the skin of the women he meets, and in these “ugly” girls, sees kindness and happiness … and acceptance. They want to be around him. Notice in this moment as well that he no longer “sees” the supermodels. Only the beauty he’s never been witness to before. The fact that he does not know this, that his transformation has been entirely without him knowing how it works, is what makes this so effective. Hal is happy. We’re happy. It’s this very point in the film that everything that follows hinges.
Shallow Hal is not a great movie but it is also not bad. It’s rather one-dimensional and never really takes advantage of the great premise it has, for the audience’s sake, simply making ugly as fat and beautiful as skinny, a conceit that at least the filmmakers try to make work. Also, the supporting cast is almost entirely unnecessary, with Mauricio a bland and uninteresting character that is all too worn thin from the start. However, when the movie puts its energies toward the relationship of Hal and Rosemary, and particularly with their evolution, it’s a lot of fun. Well worth a watch.