The Farrelly Brothers have always intentionally made comedies that walk an ever so fine line between being mean and good natured, whether it’s delightfully offensive (Me Myself & Irene) or benignly reined in (Stuck On You). They just understand and have this certain symbiosis with off colour humour and the fact that most of the films would be boycotted out of the theatres in this age of hysterical hyper sensitivity is a fair reminder that jokes are just jokes, everything is fair game or nothing is fair game and hey, fat jokes are just plain hilarious in the right dosage. Shallow Hal was a pleasant surprise for me, it’s their most compassionate and mature film while still retaining that edge where you’re not sure if they’re laughing at the disabled, blind, fat, deaf or what have you or with them. They’re laughing with them.
Jack Black is Hal, a man whose dying father (Bruce McGill) imparted words of wisdom to him on his deathbed at the age of nine, telling him to never ‘settle for average poon tang’ and always go for ‘hot young tail.’ Well you can imagine how that could fuck with someone’s head at that age and as such he grows up into a superficial snob who looks at women with skin deep lenses and has no use for anything but physical attraction. After he’s stuck in an elevator with self help guru Tony Robbins (self help guru Tony Robbins) and given a little hypnotic boost he can now only see inner beauty in anyone he looks at, and vice versa. When he meets three hundred pound Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) he perceives a slim supermodel type while everyone around him can behold the real thing. It’s a tricky concept that you shouldn’t put too much thought into lest you think too hard and logic sets in but it’s a breezy film that is more interested in the implications of its concept rather than semantics.
Black is good enough in his first big time starring role and the Farrelly’s populate the film with an ever eclectic bunch of people like Joe Viterelli, Susan Ward, Kyle Gass and Jason Alexander as Hal’s asshole buddy who..ah… well I won’t spoil it but it’s a classic Farrelly sight gag. It’s actually Paltrow that grounds this thing though, the film has great compassion for her character despite ruthlessly making fun of her the whole time and like I said it’s a very fine line but it somehow works. She’s very aware of her weight, her situation and even cracks self deprecating jokes. She’s smart, funny, caring, compassionate and the film asks you to see those qualities set apart from her physical appearance. The best scene in the film sees Hal visit a children’s burn ward for the second time. Of course the first time he went he couldn’t see their obvious scars and as such treated them as he would any other adorable kid. When the spell Robbins put on him is lifted and he can see everything again a small girl who he played with last time approaches him and wonders why he hasn’t visited since. Of course he can see her scars now and doesn’t immediately recognize her, but when she reminds him of her name and he does… well it’s the sweetest, most honest moment of the film and hits the main point home hard. (Also the only time in any Farrelly film I’ve teared up by the way, but shhh). So the film has this irreverence that’s always there in their work, this cheerful aim to make fun of things you’re ‘not supposed to laugh’ at. Anything out there is to laugh at though and that’s just the way the world works. The film understands this as well as compassion, perspective, understanding, character while still being an off the wall, bonkers comedy and I loved it for that.