Comedy examines popular culture for laughs

Grade: B+

Over the past seven years and five movies, the Farrelly brothers have dedicated themselves to creating modern-day mythology. With films like "Dumb and Dumber," "Kingpin" and "There's Something About Mary," the writer-director siblings have given us stories that hearken back to ancient myths; tales of everyday men fighting extraordinary circumstances.

A Farrelly brothers movie is common ground for mistaken and switched identities, bizarre misunderstandings and personal quests. And, of course, there is always a moral at the end.

The brothers are often accused of peddling low-brow trash, and presenting callous humor. Their movies poke fun at the mentally retarded, the handicapped and now, with "Shallow Hal," the obese. Yet these movies create great sympathy for their characters, and when we laugh, we are also embracing the collective pain created by a society that disregards anyone who is different.

"Shallow Hal" finds the dynamic duo working in a subtler, more muted tone than their usual fare. The film comes slow out the gate, but by the first half-hour mark the belly laughs are out in full force.

Hal (Jack Black, "High Fidelity") is a man looking for love in all the wrong ways. He bases his choice of women solely on physical appearance, seeking the modelesque over the plain-faced, but kindhearted. Another character asks Hal if he would prefer a woman with only one breast or only half a brain, and Hal's answer provokes one of the biggest laughs of the movie.

The irony here is that while Hal has a good heart, he will never be mistaken for a model. In his first leading role, Black finds the perfect note, playing Hal as a kindhearted man who hides his insecurity by acting like a swaggering, overconfident playboy.

Hal's life changes one day when he's trapped in an elevator with self-help guru Tony Robbins, playing himself. Robbins hypnotizes Hal, telling him he will now see only the inner beauty in those around him. For Hal, beautiful women are suddenly showing interest in him. For the rest of the world, Hal has suddenly become interested in women he would normally cross the street to avoid.

In his new state of ignorant bliss Hal meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow). At this point, the movie truly takes off. Hal's compliments are so out of sync with Paltrow's appearance that at first she thinks they are insults. They embark upon a tightrope of a relationship. When Hal sees Rosemary, he sees Gwyneth Paltrow. When everyone else sees Rosemary, they see Paltrow in a fat suit that makes her look like she weighs 300 pounds.

Paltrow spends most of the movie without the fat suit, and is brilliant in her ability to evoke the extra weight, even when it is not physically present. Her voice goes from brash to wounded, and she moves in the faltering, self-conscious manner of one who has endured years of insults over their physical appearance. At one point she asks Hal to stop complimenting her, because his proclamations of beauty only re-enforce the reality.

More even than most Farrelly brothers movies, "Shallow Hal" creates in us deep empathy for its characters. By the end we truly care about what happens to them, and want them to be happy.

This film's moral -- that inner beauty is more important than physical appearance -- is a trite one. But it's also one that's more important than ever in an age when popular culture force-feeds us an idealized image of beauty. Mythology is an allegorical narrative, a single story that teaches us about human nature. Old or young, man or woman, there's a little bit of Shallow Hal in all of us.


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