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SHALLOW HAL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gwyneth Paltrow, Jack Black, Jason Alexander, Tony Robbins
Directors:  Bobby & Peter Farrelly
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  July 2, 2002

“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’?”

“Have YOU ever heard the song ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’??”

Film ***

Chances are, if you’re going to be offended by Shallow Hal, the offense is going to come when you first hear the premise of the movie.  On the basis of that, you might either 1) shun the film entirely, or 2) watch the picture begrudgingly, ready to unleash venom upon it.

Shallow Hal, if you haven’t heard already, is about a guy named Hal (Black) who has a hang-up about physical beauty when it comes to women…he’d rather be with a lovely lady that treats him like dirt than a girl with lesser looks and a heart of gold.  A chance meeting with Tony Robbins (yes, that Tony Robbins) alters his outlook…from that point on, he sees women’s inner beauty manifested on the outside.  The crust of the gag becomes his burgeoning relationship with a 300-plus pound woman who looks like Gwyneth Paltrow to him.

The potential for offense is definitely there…after all, it continually seems like overweight people are the last remaining group society deems okay to belittle.  Make Hal’s girlfriend a different race, religion, or sex, and you’ve got left-wing groups coming out in droves to protest.  Make her fat, and it’s all clean, harmless fun…and if obese people feel humiliated, well, then, they just can’t take a joke, can they?

That being said, I personally don’t think Shallow Hal wanders too far into insulting waters.  The picture was made by the Farrelly brothers, who’ve made a reputation for themselves by being politically incorrect in such films as There’s Something About Mary or Me, Myself & Irene.  But though their humor tends to go for the taboo subjects and cross all kinds of boundaries, there’s usually a subtle, inherent sweetness that offsets a potentially mean spirit. 

In this picture, they do get a few cheap laughs out of Rosemary’s size (including one of the year’s funniest visual gags that involves a swimming pool), but each one serves to further our sympathies for both her and Hal.  Rosemary is a wonderful character, kind and sweet…we like her and root for her throughout the film, while at the same time, wondering how Hal will react when his newfound abilities to see inner beauty inevitably wear off.

I think the Farrellys also manage to sidestep potential offense by casting Jack Black in the role of Hal.  Black isn’t conventionally handsome by any means, and a bit on the round side himself.  It helps us to see Hal more as a person with a problem than just an image snob, which is how we would have looked at him had someone like Heath Ledger portrayed him.  Even better is the casting of Jason Alexander as Hal’s best buddy, who’s even more shallow and more unattractive, spouting the worst toupee I’ve seen since William Shatner in the Star Trek movies!

The opposite side of the casting coin, of course, is the radiant and petite Paltrow, the last person you’d expect to see sporting such a full figure.  Both actors are capable of making us laugh while at the same time getting to heart of a pair of damaged characters who seem perfect for one another if they could just get over some obvious obstacles. 

The point isn’t subtle, but certainly valid…and one, I’m pleased to say, isn’t lost on Hal, which is the film’s final trump card.  If a Shallow Hal can tread through the waters of possibly dangerous comedy and come out on the other side with a valuable lesson learned, maybe we can, too.

BONUS TRIVIA: Look for two of Jack Black’s real life partners in an early break room scene:  his girlfriend, comic Laura Kightlinger, and his Tenacious D bandmate, Kyle Gass.

Video ***1/2

This is a commendable anamorphic effort from Fox.  Shallow Hal has good coloring and crispness from start to finish, save a couple of softer shots that take place in lower lit scenes that are minor.  Detail levels are good throughout, with bright natural tones and little noticeable grain or compression evident.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack offers some dynamic punch for comic effect, and serves both the music and the dialogue with clarity.  The rear stage is used only marginally but effectively in a few crowd oriented scenes; most of the audio comes from the front, however, and comes across with good balance and smooth panning effects.

Features ****

The extras are plentiful here, starting with a commentary track by the Farrelly brothers (good, but wouldn’t you have loved one with Jack Black?), plus two short documentaries.  The one for HBO is marginal, focusing too much on what makes people shallow than the movie, but the Comedy Central one is entertaining, informative, and engaging.

There are 11 deleted scenes with optional Farrelly commentary, a Shelby Lynne music video, featurettes on both the make up and one key stunt sequence (the pool gag), plus the trailer and animated menus with sound.  A nice package overall.

Summary:

Shallow Hal surprises in the way it carefully walks a tight rope of sweetness over a potentially dangerous fall into mean-spiritedness.  Credit both the Farrelly brothers and two terrific cast members in Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black in keeping this movie in line and making it a success.