A Look Back: Shallow Hal

As I’ve mentioned before, movies tend to vary widely in how closely the dilemmas they present their main characters with resemble something a real person would grapple with in reality. They can range from the impossible (what if your distant dad died and was reincarnated as a ghost, Jack Frost or a fluffy cat?) to the improbable (if you met your identical twin at camp one summer would you be angry at your parents for keeping the secret or would you just try to get them back together?). Or how about this one, courtesy of Bobby and Peter Farrelly – Could you fall in love with an obese partner, if you were magically hypnotized into thinking they were slim and gorgeous? That’s the plight of the title character (Jack Black) in the movie “Shallow Hal.” Or perhaps “plight” is the wrong word since Jack is happily oblivious. For awhile anyway.

If you’re a character in a movie, you probably want to avoid getting into the elevator with anyone who appears pregnant unless you happen to have experience delivering babies, and “Shallow Hal,” also teaches us that it’s best to avoid riding elevators with self-help gurus like Tony Robbins (here playing himself). If you are a hopelessly – well, shallow – man (Jack) who has no shame about bemoaning the fact that it’s so hard to find attractive women these days, then you might want to think twice because Tony just might take matters into his own hands. It doesn’t help that his father died just as he was making Young Jack promise to only pursue “hot’ women, nor does it that he hangs out in his free time with the equally shallow Jason Alexander. But after Tony’s intervention that gives Jack the ability to see inner beauty on the outside, soon he’s discovering that the world is just full of gorgeous ladies. Including – Gwyneth Paltrow apparently. Not only that – but she’s single – and after a little time, warms up to him and accepts his feelings for her as genuine.

Cognitive dissonance, a popular concept lately used to explain the Left and the Right to each other, comes in handy when Jack finds himself in such odd situations as having his shared milkshake drained in seconds or watching Gwyneth catapult into the pool sending a child into a tree. Why everyone else has such a different reaction to Gwyneth doesn’t cause Jack to think too hard about whether it’s him or them who are the insane ones. Who cares when you’ve found a woman who’s beautiful, smart and compassionate (she not only helps children who are burn victims, she’s also had a stint in the Peace Corps). Though Gwyneth is also the daughter of Jack’s boss (Joe Viterelli), this obstacle is overcome, and for awhile, they are happy together.

But of course, this can’t stand, and eventually Jack get re-hypnotized back to his old shallow self. The end involves Gwyneth taking the tried-and-true movie route of all scorned women – she decides to get the hell out of there, but luckily (it’s amazing how this always happens just in time) Jack manages to intercept her and declare his love – so there’s a happy ending after all. Of course, a viewer may wonder if outer attractiveness can’t also coexist with being empathetic. And they might note that Thin Gwyneth gets more screen time than her fat counterpart, as well as appears on the promo picture. But it’s a movie which doesn’t require you to parse this too closely. Still it’s true, as a wise person once said, beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone.

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