Anyone can see that Shallow Hal is a one-joke movie. What makes it misfire is that its one joke clashes with its one idea.
Played by Jack Black (the manic comic from High Fidelity), Hal is squat and chunky, and falls into a default look - a glare - that makes him look intense and crude, like Neanderthal man. But Hal fixates on women with the dimensions of models for the Sports llustrated swimsuit issue. Professional motivator Tony Robbins (as himself) gets stuck in an elevator with this bozo, senses that he has a good heart (how? why?), and decides to rescue him from the inevitable unhappiness of never landing his dream women or knowing love.
Robbins hypnotizes Hal into seeing other people's inner beauty. As a result, Hal thinks he wows a series of jaw-dropping knockouts, and then falls head over heels for sweet, brainy Rosemary. She looks like Gwyneth Paltrow to Hal. To the rest of us, she looks like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon that's begun to pucker, thanks to a prosthetic makeup that goes beyond morbid obesity.
Already you can see the self-defeating character of this low High Concept. It damns media stereotypes and proselytizes for men appreciating the female brain and heart. But Hal evolves only when he visualizes soulful qualities in the graceful, willowy form of Gwyneth Paltrow. Inner beauty, meet cover-girl ideal.
To be fair, Paltrow is charming as she plays shy, halting qualities usually not the province of an art house Golden Girl. But most laughs come from, say, Rosemary breaking a restaurant chair with her bulk (it happens twice!), leaving Hal to wonder how the couple could run repeatedly into defective dining furniture. Fat libbers, meet fat jokes.
And when Hal discovers that Rosemary is the daughter of his crusty boss (Joe Viterelli, refreshingly low-key and hilarious, partly because of his idiosyncratic brogue), the workplace comedy wouldn't pass muster on a sitcom.
The Farrelly Brothers (There's Something About Mary) directed and also co-wrote the script with Sean Moynihan. Relinquishing gross-out comedy this time out for Capra-esque good feeling, they preach for Americans to adopt an inclusive, "big tent" approach to social life: The most unique and engaging character is a super-confident guy with spina bifida named Walt (Rene Kirby), who walks on all fours and is still a party animal and expert skier. The "normal" men, deep down, are as wounded as their many spurned women. Hal's dad, delirious with pain and medication, traumatized him with male-chauvinist-pig deathbed advice. Hal's best friend, Mauricio (Jason Alexander), is afflicted with a rug that's like the black head-cap of an evil cleric in a medieval horror story.
But the Farrellys can't keep the simplest notions or devices consistent. For example, it turns out Hal and Mauricio can attract conventional beauties: Hal merely has to prove he's sensitive, and Mauricio must overcome his "intimacy issues." And a nurse who is a crone turns into a beauty and then back into a crone sans explanation.
The Farrellys' bloated slapstick is more suitable for the Big Top than a big tent: It's what they have instead of momentum or escalating giddiness. There should be more screen-time of Jack with the blinders off properly wooing Rosemary and helping her forge a new sense of iconoclastic fun. Instead we get a hasty, rosy climax.
By the end of this movie, love is supposed to conquer all - but the writing and direction vanquish it.
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Running time 114 minutes
Sun score: * 1/2