Can't Hardly Weight?

As the raves rolled in for his scene-swiping turn in last year's High fidelity, Jack Black knew better than to take his own ascendant profile too seriously. A master of facetious self-aggrandizement (any Tenacious D-ciples in the house?), he jokingly told his agent to alert all studio heads that he was now officially ready for his Big Romantic Lead Opposite Gwyneth Paltrow--night shoots only, of course.

The guy may have been merely kidding, but the mock prophecy fulfilled itself soon enough--minus the cushy shooting schedule--when the Farrelly Brothers offered Shallow Hal's title role to Black point-blank, sans audition. Whether the uniquely talented actor took the job out of a desire to broaden his chops, to pay the rent, or simply to get next to Gwynnie, he winds up pretty much right back where he started. Hal, it turns out, is largely a pawn in this eye-of-the-beholder parable, with precious few punch lines (at least by Farrelly standards). Even his own lack of depth when it comes to women is somebody else's fault, as we learn in the film's opening moments--leaving Black to wade patiently through an ankle-deep script with no real opportunity to prove his mettle, comedic or otherwise.

Mind you, he never beat out Meryl Streep for an Oscar, which puts Paltrow in an even lonelier and less enviable spotlight here (and pretty much everywhere post-Shakespeare in Love). As Rosemary, a good-as-gold Peace Corps vet and hospital volunteer who just so happens to weigh in at around 300 pounds, she logs only a few minutes of actual screen time in the pasty fat suit that is the film's most prominent novelty act. Most of the time, she's simply her smart, svelte, charming, Neutrogena-kissed self, occasionally darkening her own radiance with just enough glower to remind us of how grossly outsize and unattractive her character really feels.

The idea--in case the trailer didn't set it up for you, like, weeks ago--is that the usually supermodel-fixated Hal falls under a hypnotic spell through which he suddenly views women in terms of their "inner beauty" rather than their exterior assets. Any woman with a pure heart (apparently defined by her capacity to care for the less fortunate) appears to him as a slender, ready-for-Maxim hottie, no matter how she looks in real life. Accordingly, the thoughtfully benevolent but huge and purportedly homely Rosemary takes on the delicate shape and features of, er, Gwyneth Paltrow. The spell ain't irreversible, of course, and it's only a matter of time before poor Hal is forced to ponder the (ir)relevance of a woman's looks and the true nature of love.

With that in mind, let's take a moment to reflect on the Farrellys' track record when it comes to casting female leads. Lauren Holly (Dumb & Dumber), Cameron Diaz (There's Something About Mary), Renée Zellweger (Me, Myself & Irene), and Paltrow are all similarly slight cover girls who, while they may have done loads of charity work, most likely don't need to include it on their résumés. It's fair to say that having Diaz smear an errant load in her hair or wrapping Paltrow in a few pounds of latex can make for a safe, easy, fleeting subversion of the beauty myth at, um, large. But with their already plucky penchant for midgets, anatomical sight gags, and more down-to-earth romantic chemistry, shouldn't the Farrellys be screwing with the standard a little more aggressively? Instead of Paltrow, why not go with Camryn Manheim and a crew of CGI slimmer-downers to achieve Hal's well-meaning "beer-goggle" effect?

Here's one reason: It wouldn't solve much. Shallow Hal's various copouts and inconsistencies run deeper than its choice of a conventionally beautiful starlet to represent an intangible, fully transcendent notion of beauty. Simply put, there are far better stories out there for demonstrating just how blind true love can and should be, and very few of them require this many "fine ladies" and fat jokes.

Even held up against previous Farrelly farces, there's something about Hal that just doesn't add up. The brothers' trademark array of offbeat supporting characters is a little thin here, and those who do surface hardly bear more than a fleeting significance. As Hal's doubly shallow pal Mauricio, Jason Alexander squeezes out a few worthy one-liners, but the performance as a whole feels like a helping of warmed-over George Costanza. Above all, it's downright strange how the film fails to capitalize on the comic skill of its star, limiting Black's funniest moments to those in which he appears to be sneaking off-script. (Heck, with bandmate Kyle Gass already making a cameo as Hal's coworker, why not give Tenacious D a couple of musical numbers?) There are actually some moments of mellow, bona fide chemistry between Black and Paltrow, but we can only assume that the film's greater aim to strike a more meaningful emotional chord ended up compromising the laugh factor that both Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller ably sustained in past efforts.

So: Read Shallow Hal as a direct rebuttal to the stalwart "No Fat Chicks" bumper-sticker campaign, and maybe the simplicity and relative niceties of the Farrellys' current sentiment is worth applauding on some level. It's at least mildly refreshing not to see the mentally disabled take a ribbing this time out. In the end, however, any number of beholders' eyes are bound to find fault with such a lightweight treatment.

 
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