THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sometimes you find sweetness in the most unlikely of places...such as in the films of the Farrelly brothers. The siblings are well-known for the outrageous comedy of There's Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber, and Me, Myself & Irene. But have you noticed anything about those movies? They're all essentially love stories. The team's newest project, Shallow Hal, is also a love story and it ranks as probably the sweetest movie to come from the Farrellys yet. It's also very funny.

Jack Black (who burst onto the scene in last year's High Fidelity) plays Hal Larson, a generally decent guy who is nonetheless very demanding when it comes to the opposite sex. In fact, he demands nothing less than physical perfection from the women he dates. (The fact that he himself is not exactly a GQ cover model is one of the film's more sly jokes.) Hal dismisses women for a variety of reasons, most of them inconsequential. Some of the women even pick up on his bad vibes before getting involved; his across-the-hall neighbor Jill (Susan Ward) barely gives him the time of day. Despite some setbacks, Hal and best friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) prowl nightclubs in search of women who will meet their impossible standards.

A few days later, Hal gets trapped in an elevator with famous self-help guru Tony Robbins, who hypnotizes him so that he can only see the "inner beauty" in people. Hal, of course, doesn't realize what has happened. Then he meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a 300-pound woman who is regularly taunted by people because of her size. When Hal looks at Rosemary, he doesn't see her obesity; he sees her as thin and beautiful. They begin dating, but he remains unaware. Not even when his "thin" Rosemary bends a steel chair by sitting on it does he understand that she is not exactly as she appears. He is, quite simply, in love - with who she is, not with how she looks. Mauricio is horrified and tricks Robbins into dehypnotizing Hal. The issue is whether or not he will retain his shallow ways or acknowledge his love of Rosemary just the way she is.

Jack Black doesn't understand how Gwyneth Paltrow rocks the boat in the comedy Shallow Hal
As you would expect from the Farrelly brothers, Shallow Hal is packed with outrageous humor (although it has far less of the grossout stuff than their other pictures). Many of the gags revolve around Hal not realizing that Rosemary is overweight, despite evidence to the contrary. In one scene, they sit together in a rowboat. She sits in the front while he sits in the rear, which is raised in the air. Later, Rosemary nearly empties a swimming pool by doing a cannonball off the diving board. Hal comprehends none of this. Jack Black is a very funny guy who does a good job capturing both Hal's superficiality as well as his confusion over the little hints about Rosemary's true appearance.

In fact, a big part of what makes the movie so successful is that the unexpected combination of Black and Paltrow really works. He gives the movie its humor, while she gives it some heart. Paltrow delivers a performance of real emotion. Rather than playing Rosemary as the butt of a joke, she makes the character a real person who has obviously been wounded by years of torment over her weight. Late in the film, there's a scene in which a restaurant booth crushes under Rosemary's weight. She tips over backwards with her dress over her head, underwear exposed to everyone nearby. Some comedies would have played this for laughs (and this one does so with a similar scene early on), but Paltrow so effectively conveys the character's humiliation that laughter is impossible.

It would be hard to accuse Shallow Hal of being prejudiced toward those with weight problems because the film has a lot of sympathy for what they go through. The message has to do with respecting people as they are, rather than objectifying them based on physical appearances. There is even a subplot involving a guy with spina bifida who gets lots of women simply because he is such a nice guy. I really liked the sweet quality of the movie. Shallow Hal made me laugh, and it made me feel good too. Say what you want about the trademark Farrelly humor - and I'm a huge fan - but remember that deep down, these guys are a couple of softies.

( out of four)

Shallow Hal is rated PG-13 for for language and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
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