DEC 2001/JAN 2002

Shallow Hal

Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jack Black, and Jason Alexander

Hal Larson (Jack Black) will only date young women who look like swimsuit/lingerie models. For various reasons, however, he cannot actually get dates with these women until self-help guru Tony Robbins (playing himself) helps alter Hal’s perception so that he sees only the inner beauty in women. This leads him to fall in love with the obese Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow—sometimes in a "fat suit"), and leads the movie into the lowbrow comic territory one expects from the Farrelly Brothers. Hal’s best friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) decides he must save Hal from his "misperception" and the dramatic conflict ensues. Ultimately, the core message of Shallow Hal is that all people (both women and men) are loving and lovable, and that in our own individual ways nearly all of us get derailed from our ability to fully experience and express this essential nature. The good news they offer is that we can recover this human warmth by connecting honestly with people, making messy mistakes with each other, and cleaning things up together.

For Hal, the defining—or derailing—moment comes in the film’s opening sequence. On his deathbed, Hal’s father tells his nine-year-old son that the most important thing in life is young sexy women, and that he should make them his life’s pursuit. The problem for Hal as an adult, then, is that he is neither attractive nor socially graceful enough for such women to find him immediately attractive. Jack Black plays Hal to great effect because he is cast "against type." Black has built a career on small roles as supporting characters that are simultaneously irritating and charming. Furthermore, his chunky physique and doughy face do not come close to fitting the typical requirements for a Hollywood romantic leading man. In another romantic comedy he might play the leading man’s goofy sidekick (as he did in High Fidelity), but here he takes center stage. Black’s Hal (as well as Alexander’s Mauricio—made even less attractive by a distractingly bad "hair supplement") is the sort of "everyman" who enables the audience to find the drama more genuine and ultimately believable (in spite of some sloppiness in the narrative’s internal consistency) than would the Hal of an actor like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.

This casting choice is counterpointed (or, perhaps, underscored) by the casting of the "beautiful Hollywood star" Gwyneth Paltrow in the role of Rosemary’s "inner beauty" (with special effects makeup adding the necessary physical enhancement). Her presence—without the "fat suit" for most of the film—sets up the cinematic realization of a stereotypical male fantasy (the regular guy wins the heart of the gorgeous gal). This fact successfully positions the film as a Hollywood commodity (as opposed to the low-budget "indie" film it could have been without Paltrow’s star on board) that hopes to reach a mass audience. As such it relies for its success on the power that stereotypical standards of feminine beauty hold over mainstream audiences. Then the film purposefully betrays the audience by playing out its entire final act with Paltrow in the "fat suit" that we have only seen comic glimpses of in previous scenes. Thus, Shallow Hal attempts to bring a mass audience to question its values alongside Hal, as its narrative turns his perceptions inside out.

As the comedy and drama of this perceptual shift plays out, Shallow Hal critiques standards of female beauty by looking at who constructs and perpetuates them, how and why they do this, what impact these standards have on all women (even those who are more stereotypically "desirable"), and also what impact they have on men. In the world of this film, women choose between attempting to attain the set standard of beauty and attempting to just be themselves regardless of how they may compare with that standard. For their part, Men choose between chasing after an unattainable fantasy and disregarding that fantasy at peril of social ostracism. None of these choices can ultimately satisfy because they all stand in the long shadow cast by the problematic false ideal of beauty.

The men and women who choose to bow to the stereotypes lead lives with difficult and unfulfilling relationships. Mauricio, the film’s most staunch defender of female stereotypes—and, not coincidentally, the character least successful in relationships—eventually has an epiphany about the roots of his self-defeating behavior. Hal, on the other hand, recalls no such cut-and-dried rationale for his behavior and must struggle against his own conditioning as well as the merciless taunting of his own best friend. Fascinatingly, a proposition from the woman who had refused him in one of the film’s opening moments—his stereotypically sexy neighbor, Jill—finally pushes him to make the right decision about his relationship with Rosemary. It turns out that Jill had refused him primarily because she believed him to be the shallow sort of man who only dated "beautiful" women. After seeing him with Rosemary, however, Jill re-evaluates Hal’s character.

This reveals the nature of the trap women can fall into alongside men when they aspire to fit the standard society sets for them. The rules of socialization dictated by the dominant culture instill a peculiar sort of doubt in us regarding our ability to judge the character of the people with whom we relate. This becomes acute when we agree—in most cases through no fault or even conscious choice of our own—to live by a social ideology of physical beauty that has become so entrenched that it openly proclaims itself part of objective reality or "nature." In the end, a sort of short-hand list of traits to look for in an intimate partner, which perhaps evolved with the intention of simplifying a complex matter, turns out to alienate us all from each other by largely casting clear and honest communication out of the process of human relations.

So much for the problems the beauty myth causes for people trying to find someone to give their love to. What of the problems it causes for people trying to get love? Part of the strength of Paltrow’s performance as Rosemary revolves around a bipolarity in which she alternately basks in Hal’s loving attention and then doubts at least the durability if not the reality itself of her experience. Her self-doubt has been driven so deep, in fact, that she has virtually given up on finding a loving partner. A particularly incisive moment in the film comes when Hal berates Rosemary’s father with a clear-headed honesty for his contribution to her belief that she is anything other than enchantingly beautiful. On the surface, because Hal sees a "different" Rosemary than does her father, this speech plays for laughs. Thanks to the sharp sincerity of Black’s performance, however, Hal sounds like he truly believes what he says and a more resonant, critical validity rings through his words. At this deeper level his speech cuts to the very core of the film’s notion that the damage done by the beauty myth begins with its entrenchment in our own families.

Additionally, to make sure the rest of society receives its share of the blame, Shallow Hal later includes a scene that extends and sharpens its critique to a blatantly confrontational degree. Mauricio, hoping to save Hal from social ostracism, hunts down Tony Robbins and attempts to convince him to "un-hypnotize" his friend. This sends Robbins into an angry but also very rational rant in which he accuses Mauricio of being hypnotized by TV, movies, and magazines. Robbins’ speech slams these purveyors of the mythology of ideal feminine beauty with particular attention paid to the negative effect they have on men’s relationships with members of the opposite sex.

As with any Farrelly Brother’s movie, Shallow Hal combines such strikingly honest appraisals of human failings with unavoidably offensive gags. The redemptive value here lies in the sincere effort made to push some progressive ideas onto a mainstream audience. That the progressive ideas of the film’s drama play out against the "comic" background of a regressive status quo cannot be denied. But it does look like a step in the right direction, and if we want to extricate ourselves from the big mess of the beauty myth we will have to take one step at a time.

DEC 2001/JAN 2002

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