A Very Big Love Story
Previews of coming attractions can be very misleading. In the case of Shallow Hal, I was completely turned off about this romantic comedy by its teaser. I thought the film would focus entirely on making fun of overweight women. Still, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black intrigue me as co-stars, so I ignored my feelings of distaste and saw the flick anyway -- an excellent decision, in spite of Jason Alexander’s irritating performance as Black’s obnoxious buddy.
With its emphasis on judging people by their inner beauty instead of by physical appearance, Shallow Hal reminded me of a 1945 romantic fantasy entitled The Enchanted Cottage. Starring Dorothy McGuire as a homely maid and Robert Young as a face-scarred ex-GI, this earlier film never fails to make me happy when I think of it. Visions of how love transformed a man and woman into beautiful beings in each other’s eyes linger after all these years. I’m not sure I’ll feel the same about Shallow Hal in the future, but the Farrelly Brothers (who directed and co-wrote the movie) deserve credit for tackling this sensitive theme in a contemporary setting.
The opportunity to catch Black (High Fidelity) in his first starring role is another plus for Shallow Hal. Playing a pudgy executive who will date only pretty women -- until he falls in love with 300-pound Paltrow (Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love), Black generates considerable energy on screen. He even manages to be sympathetic while doing such idiotic things as complimenting Paltrow on her svelte figure and dancing seductively with homely women he thinks are attractive. How could he make these mistakes? Easy enough. (After all, this is a whimsical movie, not real life.) Popular relationship guru Tony Robbins has altered Black’s perception. His character now sees the true beauty inside each woman, thus changing their outward appearances -- but only to him.
A clever concept like this sets the stage for sight gags galore. When Black and Paltrow go boating, Black’s side of the canoe rises high out of the lake as he paddles the air, blissfully unaware of why such a thing is happening. Paltrow’s dive into a swimming pool forces most of the water, as well as a frightened youngster, out of the pool. She breaks most of the chairs she sits in, causing her new boyfriend to question the "quality" of the furniture in the restaurants they frequent. Black calls Paltrow "Houdini" after she tosses him her ultraplus-size lingerie before they make love the first time -- a compliment for her ability to hide so much fabric in her tiny frame.
Playing a caring, conscientious woman who suffers from low self-esteem because of her size, Paltrow excels in scenes where she questions the attention Black’s character gives her. Her perplexed expressions rang true to me, especially when telling a surprised Black about her lack of dating experience. And these co-stars touched me deeply in sequences showing them relating to hospitalized children. They each project humor and sensitivity as they interact with the young patients. I love the way they looked at the kids with genuine concern while treating them with great respect. If I were sick, a visit from either Paltrow or Black would cheer me up, too.
On the other hand, if Alexander showed up at my door, I’d call 911 immediately! In the role of Black’s club-hopping pal, this fugitive from television’s Seinfeld comes across like a modern Rumplestilskin -- who happens to be my least favorite fairy tale character. Flailing his arms, squinting his eyes, whining and yelling, calling heavy women "Rhinos" -- Alexander almost spoiled Shallow Hal for me. I know he wasn’t supposed to be sympathetic, but a touch of humanity couldn’t hurt. Maybe Jeremy Piven (Serendipity) was too busy to take this part. But he would have been perfect here.
Because of a one-joke emphasis in this latest Farrelly Brothers flick (billed as "The Biggest Love Story Ever Told"), it’s no match for There’s Something about Mary, their true comic classic. Still, these talented siblings are on the right track by bringing heart into their filmmaking. Shallow Hal delivers a welcome message about finding the goodness in each individual instead of concentrating on the way a person looks. How ironic someone as beautiful as Gwyneth Paltrow is needed to illustrate that point!
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for language and sexual content.)