Shallow Hal

I never thought I would be a fan of the Farrelly Brothers back in the days of Dumb and Dumber, but they have grown on me. Though best known for their gross-out gags (of which Shallow Hal is mostly bereft), what I find remarkable is the brothers' sense of humanity. They do more for the acceptance of people's differences than any more ostensibly high-minded Hollywood filmmaker around.

Of course a lot of folks don't see that, and so they have a knee-jerk outrage at the Farrelly's flair for casting mentally and physically handicapped actors, albinos, dwarfs, and so on. Which is a shame, because the brothers routinely depict these unusual people as funny, smart, kind, and ultimately human.

Shallow Hal is their most open call for tolerance. The Hal of the title (Jack Black) is indeed quite shallow – a loser with the ladies, he nevertheless insists that only the supermodel-beautiful women of the world can meet his discriminating tastes. (I have known guys like this.) He is enabled by his friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander), an even bigger loser. But when stuck in an elevator for several hours with self-help guru Tony Robbins (playing himself), Hal is hypnotized by Robbins to only see the "inner beauty" of a woman.

Hal's mind literalizes this command and soon he starts panting after women who the rest of the world sees as unattractive – even repulsive. When he chances upon Rosemary (the skinny Gwyneth Paltrow to his eyes, a massive 300-pounder to everyone else), he falls head over heels in love. It's a one-joke idea: nobody, especially Mauricio, can understand how Shallow Hal can swoon over the fattest girl in town, and we're treated to endless gags of the svelte Miss Paltrow crushing chairs and devouring tons of food while Hal can't understand why everybody is looking at her funny.

But the sweetness at the core of this misunderstanding not only carries the film, it infuses the smart, witty Rosemary – who's had to endure a lifetime of rejection as a result of her weight – with great dignity. There is no question that she deserves to love and be loved, like everybody else (including a character who has spina bifida and has to walk on his hands, played by the amazing Rene Kirby). Other filmmakers would probably cave in to our current skinny girl aesthetic and make Rosemary wind up losing weight and becoming pretty by story's end, so it's to the Farrellys' great credit that their leading lady is huge and decides to stay that way – which is, ultimately, just fine with Hal.

Aside from that, there are plenty of rude jokes (don't miss the opening scene with Hal's father's raunchy deathbed advice), though the movie is much softer than the brother's previous outings; Black is fine as a leading man (though I don't picture him in any more romantic dramas soon); and for once I actually liked Gwyneth Paltrow, who even in skinny mode movingly conveys the low self-esteem of a woman subjected to years of being a physical outsider.