the miracle of shallow hal ©20th Century Fox
Why one of the decade's best films is a tasteless Farrelly Brothers flop by Julien Allen
Why do people even bother reviewing films directed by the Farrelly Brothers? If anyone paid attention to their reviews then it is unlikely that they would ever be given money to make films again. On the other hand there is something about Shallow Hal which places it in a higher category than their previous output. It contains hidden surprises: its intelligence is surprising for the genre; its risk-taking is remarkable for a mainstream film but above all its recognition and exploitation of the function of Cinema as a means of forcing an audience to look at themselves, is resonant and unexpected.
First of all, great comedies must have sympathy with their characters. This is one of the reasons why Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be is a great comedy and, say, Altman's The Player is not. Shallow Hal has tremendous sympathy with all of its characters, whether they be the pathologically superficial Jack Black, the bitter, secretly stricken Jason Alexander or the grossly overweight Gwyneth Paltrow. All of these characters are miserable and lost. Yet they make us laugh and they engage us in their lives, because we recognise aspects of ourselves in each of them.
This is not an easy thing to achieve because it means giving black humour (where laughs would be easier to come by) a supporting role, but the Farrellys manage it skilfully. Far from being an exercise in hypocrisy as some have argued, the script is ultimately one of great sensitivity about the subject, but such sensitivity is not served up on a plate of sentimentality, you have to dig beneath the cynical and cruel surface to find it. The film is cruellest about its main character, played by Jack Black, who represents…all of us. A surprise is in store for anyone who comes to the film prepared to turn the mirror on themselves.
Cinema, from an audience's perspective, is all about perception. How one identifies with a film's protagonists through our perceptions, which gradually unfold, of how they look, how they behave and what they say, will determine our reaction to their predicament. Yet with Shallow Hal the audience is not afforded the opportunity to connect with Paltrow's character in anything other than a very complex way. Unlike The Elephant Man where we only ever see Merrick as a deformed victim, we cannot relax into our appreciation of Paltrow's character for a moment, as she is shown intermittently grotesque and beautiful. The effect is similar to John Woo's Face/Off (another recent masterpiece masquerading as a straightforward genre film) where the John Travolta and Nicolas Cage characters literally swap faces. Who is playing the bad guy and who is playing the good guy? We are not accustomed to this being a hurdle to overcome.
Paltrow's presence in the film is not lazy casting - the contrast between the woman's two forms needs to be of the most extreme nature as this relentlessly challenges the audience without allowing it any breathing space for lazy acceptance of one form or the other.
Crucially, Paltrow's personality is exactly the same in both incarnations (this is not Jekyll and Hyde, but Black/the audience seeing the same character through rose-tinted spectacles). We gradually begin to realise that for the most part we are as guilty as Black's character and necessarily as shallow as him.
This revelation is heightened with the introduction two thirds of the way through the film of a tetraplegic man, who seems outwardly happy with life, entertaining punters in a bar...a man whom Jason Alexander despises because he gets so much attention, whilst Alexander himself remains in the shadows because he is physically and socially unremarkable.
Just as when Spielberg made Jurassic Park into a film about the terrorising of his core audience (children) the tables have been turned full circle and the audience are very soon on the defensive here. We find ourselves laughing at the fat jokes and women jokes but instead of a guilty pleasure, this becomes shameful because of its banality. Most of us are, like Hal, unremarkable and our best hope of success in our romantic life is to seek out what (inevitably deep down) makes others special, failing which we will simply wallow in our own blandness, wrongly convinced we deserve something better. This is a very challenging message for a mainstream audience and one which we can only escape if we cover up our emotional reaction to the film by shouting "hypocrisy". Yet the message is loud and clear to anyone brave enough to listen.
The Farrellys are often attacked because of their unnatural obsession with depicting, in a humorous context, disabled or challenged people in their films (dwarves and wheelchairs, not to mention siamese twins, abound on their CV). Matt Dillon in There's Something About Mary gets big laughs out of Cameron Diaz's horrified reaction to his casual use of the word "retards".
But I would look a little closer at Shallow Hal and ask yourself where the biggest laughs come from: is it when a straight fat joke is told by Black (whose character is judged by the film's title) or Alexander (whose motives are revealed later in the film)? Or is it in fact when we are laughing at Black's lack of understanding of his predicament, such as when a "thin"-looking Paltrow collapses the chair in the diner and Black remonstrates with the manager, who can see her true size yet tries desperately to remain polite. The film isn't even ambiguous in this respect - it is the latter which provides the laughs, the former only awkward chuckles of recognition of the schoolyard.
By the end of the film we are in no doubt about the context in which to take the fat gags: Hal doesn't realise until then how ironic it is that a man like him can somehow afford to be fussy. The film echoes Tod Browning's 1932 horror classic Freaks in its humanism and indeed one scene in particular, where Paltrow takes Black and Alexander to meet her ugly friends, is clearly a nod to Freaks.
Whilst other Farrelly films of less import than this one may expose the brothers to the "cake and eat it" charge, they now all deserve to be reappraised in the light of this one. In fact, the character of Jason Alexander, who reveals his own horrible secret at the end, would seem to be a confessional representation of the Farrellys themselves. Are they ashamed of their own cruelty? Is their fascination with the deformed fuelled by something deep and unresolved within themselves? Or maybe Shallow Hal is just their own way of saying sorry?
©Julien Allen 2004
Shallow Hal 2001 114 minutes Directors Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly Writers Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly Actors Jack Black Gwyneth Paltrow Jason Alexander Rene Kirby Photography Russell Carpenter Score Ivy Make Up Effects Al Gardner & Artists Asylum