Film There are three basic reasons for seeing ‘Shallow Hal’. Jack Black in his first semi-leading role. To fulfil the law written down in the scriptures that everyone must see every film Gwyneth Paltrow makes (even ‘Duets’). And to see a concept that could have been a z-grade mess of broad fat and fart jokes become a rather sweet, fragile little play about how perception can cloud people’s vision of what’s important.
The concept: man who fixates on finding a partner with perfect looks is hypnotised to see the inner beauty of people, so that woman (and men) who society has rejected as being too ugly/fat/both, seem blindingly attractive to him, and us when we see the world through his point of view.
And so it is we have the inevitable scenes of Black dancing with girls he thinks look like cheerleaders but who his best friend (in an iconic turn by Jason Alexander) periodically compares to farmyard animals.
But these scenes, which out of context in the trailer seem insensitive, in context make Alexander’s character, whose perceptions are I’m sure the same as a large proportion of the audience look shallow and in some cases quite evil.
The moments when Paltrow features in so-called ‘fat’ situations (the canoe ride, the dive bomb in to a pool) here become beats in which Black suspects something is wrong. It could by argued that because these sections aren’t laugh out loud funny it makes the film a failure. But these are the only times the film wallows in the situation and are actually quite adorable.
So why this casting? It was important to find someone who doesn’t fit the traditional image of a lead actor. If this had been the eighties it would have been Steve Martin. By selecting Jack Black we are immediately presented with someone we should dislike. After all he’s the actor who ends up the role Jason Alexander has here – the misogynist with little regard for people’s feelings. But with all this baggage, the Faralley Brothers make him blisteringly sympathetic, and we root for him precisely because he is playing against type, because we all know that in this situation he would be us.
The selection Gwyneth is slightly less complex. This is not a character who needs fleshing out too much – the heartache over her size needs to be implied not rammed home. Paltrow has life in her eyes, and her performance an emotional depth which is difficult to define for available up on screen. Even when she’s standing there in that thin mid-riff exposing shirt, we believe that this is someone not used to going out, being in a relationship or bringing someone home to meet her folks.
But what really marks the film out as different is the ending. If this had been the wrong kind of comedy. We would have seen Black chasing about the country looking for the hypnotist to put the spell back on so that he can see his girl they she had always been to him. Instead we have twenty minutes of John Cusack-style soul searching followed by an otherwise text book Hollywood ending, in which Black sees Paltrow’s inner beauty before her looks. This is done without a cutaway to remind us of what thin Gwyneth looked like and with a totally straight face. Adorable. So here we have ‘Shallow Hal’ – a comedy with hidden depths.