A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
'Shallow Hal" is given words of wisdom at the deathbed of his father, who under the influence of pain-killers is speaking from the deepest recesses of his being. "Hot young tail," his father says. "That's what it's all about." He makes Hal promise to date only beautiful women, and to beware of falling in love--"that was the tragic mistake I made with your mother." Hal (Jack Black) grows up to follow this counsel. He has no meaningful relationships with women because meaningful is not what he's looking for. With his running-mate Mauricio (Jason Alexander from "Seinfeld"), whose spray-on hair looks like a felt hat, he prowls the bars. His life is a series of brief encounters, until one day he is trapped on an elevator with Tony Robbins, the self-help guru, who hypnotizes him and tells him to look inside the women who he meets, for their inner beauty. Soon after, Shallow Hal begins to have extraordinary success with women--not least with a nurse and ex-Peace Corps volunteer named Rosemary, who looks exactly like Gwyneth Paltrow because that's the way Hal's mind is working these days. The movie plays with point-of-view shots to show us that Rosemary actually weighs about 300 pounds, but to Hal, she's slender and--well, Gwyneth Paltrow.
At first Rosemary thinks his compliments are ironic insults, and is wounded. Then she realizes he's sincere, and really does think she's beautiful. This has never happened to her before. They begin an enchanted romance, to the consternation of Hal's friends, who can't understand why he's dating this fatso. Of course, if the Tony Robbins hypnosis ever wears off . . .
"Shallow Hal," written with Sean Moynihan, is the new movie by the Farrelly brothers, Bobby and Peter. They specialize in skirmishes on the thin line between comedy and cruelty. "There's Something About Mary" had its paraplegic suitor; "Dumb and Dumber" had the little blind boy; "Me, Myself and Irene" was about a man with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, and so on. Whether we laugh or are offended depends on whether our lower or higher sensibilities are in command at the time. The Farrellys have a way of tickling the lower regions while sending the higher centers off on errands. Reader, I confess I have laughed.
"Shallow Hal" is often very funny, but it is also surprisingly moving at times. It contains characters to test us, especially Walt (Rene Kirby), who has spina bifida and an essentially immobile lower body. Kirby doesn't use a chair or braces, but lopes around on all fours, and is an expert skier, horseman, bicyclist and acrobat. Because he is clearly handicapped, we think at first his scenes are in "bad taste"--but he doesn't think so; his zest for life allows us to see his inner beauty, and his sense of humor, too, as in a scene where he explains why he's putting on rubber gloves.