“Shallow Hal” is a high-concept romantic comedy centering on the misadventures of a libidinous slob named Hal (Jack Black) who, with his equally jerky buddy Mauricio (Jason Alexander), spends his nights trolling night clubs for beautiful women. That they've never met with anything but rejection is beside the point; Hal and Mauricio pride themselves on their “high standards,” happy to wallow in self-delusion rather than confront the ugly truth about themselves. That's when Hal winds up stranded in the same stalled elevator with motivational speaker Tony Robbins (playing himself with great self-deprecating sportsmanship), spilling his guts and twisted world view to Robbins, who convinces Hal that what he really needs is some super-secret brain-whammy to alter his perception so that he only sees inner beauty (or ugliness) in the people he encounters.
With such a ripe premise, it would have been easy for the Farrellys to overindulge the obvious potential for sight gags. Thankfully, the really obvious bits last just long enough to connect Hal with Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful, svelte blonde whom the rest of the world sees as morbidly obese. While that, too, may sound like an invitation for low-brow comedy, the Farrellys manage a cinematic trick no less impressive than the one that Robbins pulls off in the movie, for they literally get to have it both ways, spinning a touching story with a heartfelt message about inner beauty while wallowing in the most shameless assortment of fat jokes ever compiled. It's horrendously hypocritical, but somehow it all manages to work.
Part of the trick, of course, is in the execution--the artful juxtaposition of Hal's view of Rosemary versus Mauricio's in such a way that audiences will feel they're laughing more at the dissonance in perception than directly at Rosemary. The rest of the equation is really as simple as great acting; Paltrow's earnestly virginal charm and Jack Black's impressively convincing turnaround from lout to chivalrous knight sustaining a level of emotional credibility that forces the audience to laugh at abstract concepts rather than individuals in whom they are emotionally invested.
There are, naturally, a handful of predictable detours into the kinds of twisted grotesqueries with which the Farrellys have become synonymous, as well as a horrible contrivance in having Rosemary be the daughter of the tycoon (Joe Viterelli, sporting a shockingly authentic Irish accent) who runs the company where Hal works. In a merciful switch from previous Farrelly films, however, these elements stay on the sidelines and are not the focal point of the movie.
Like “There's Something About Mary,” “Shallow Hal” runs long--114 minutes from end to end--too long for a comedy, but not so long that it overstays its welcome. Even as audiences feel the length, they are likely to make note of the fact that they also “feel” something that no Farrelly movie has ever made them feel before: a sense of humanity, kindness and optimism. And if the price of such feelings are a few irreverent, even rude laughs, then so be it. It's a small price to pay. Starring Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jason Alexander and Tony Robbins. Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly. Written by Sean Moynihan & Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly. Produced by Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, Marc S. Fischer and Charles B. Wessler. A Fox release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for language and sexual content. Running time: 114 min