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If you happened to see only the last half-hour of the Farrelly brothers’ Shallow Hal, you’d think that the defamatory duo had finally decided to trade gross-out for grown-up. But no matter how well-intentioned this tale of learning to appreciate inner beauty may beor how radical the titular case study’s transformationit’s clear that its topic is handled with all the sensitivity you’d expect from the same fellas who brought us the chicken up the ass.
A thinned-down Jack Black plays Hal, a playboy whose father’s death-bed message to his 9-year-old son was that “hot young tail is what it’s all about.” Taking Dad’s words to heart, Hal and his friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) troll the clubs intent on settling for no less than the very best: You may be supermodel-beautiful, baby, but take your freak show of a second toe elsewhere, please. When Hal gets trapped in an elevator with self-help guru Tony Robbins and starts talking about his vision of the perfect girl, Robbins works his voodoo and alters Hal’s people perception, allowing him to see only the attractiveness of someone’s personality. Soon after, he meets Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a nice, funny Peace Corps and hospital volunteer. Rosemary is also rather large, but Hal sees a fit and trim babe.
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Instead of getting across the noble message that women shouldn’t be judged on their looks, the Farrellys wrongly shape Shallow Hal into a testament that fat people deserve love, too. Though a couple of the people the transformed Hal now sees as beautiful are thin (and, in reality, not nearly as cartoonishly unattractive by non-Hollywood standards as we’re supposed to think), the directors clearly believe that fat is funnyand furthermore push the idea that overweight women are ultimately unlovable, unworthy of even dancing with men who are not equal in girth.
Like much of the Farrellys’ humor, the jokes included here will make the audience squirm, though this time the discomfort is psychological rather than visceral, with nary a nervous titter as a payoff. Hal’s confusion over what kind of woman he’s seeing twists his sincere comments on Rosemary’s beauty, the number of guys she must have chasing after her, and what she weighs”110? 115?”into a barrage of hurtful digs, and her own CEO father’s disbelief that any guy would be more interested in kissing her than the boss man’s behind underscores the directors’ more-is-less agenda. Rosemary and her unattractive ilk are played as humanitarian projects, victims in need of rescue; Hal, simply because he sees thin and beautiful, is no longer the one with the problem.
Despite one scene that’s almost shocking in its tendernessdon’t worry, a discussion of a physical abnormality quickly followsas well as its lovey ending, Shallow Hal never quite succeeds at making you feel good about what you’re watching. As the father-and-son setup suggests, Hal’s superficiality is supposed to come across as forgivable, and Black’s new gee-whiz look does make his character seem merely a rube who cluelessly chases women who are out of his league.
Alexander’s Mauricio, however, is George Costanza without the self-doubt, a cocky, impossible-to-please jackass who’s forever tossing animal-related insults toward the women who just aren’t good enough for him or his friend. (Which leaves you wondering why Hal’s inverted perception didn’t change the way he sees him. Alexander may not be pinup material, but surely Mauricio’s hateful personality isn’t adequately mirrored by a bald pate and some extra pounds.) The movie’s best lines come out of conversations in which the pair are unwittingly making fun of themselves (on Mauricio’s catchability: “You’re pulling in, what, 28, 29?”), but there isn’t enough of such talk to reinforce the idea that it’s tunnel-visioned men and not less-than-exquisite women who are truly flawed.
The Farrellys reportedly had rail-thin Paltrow in mind when developing the character of Rosemarya curious choice given that they wanted an actress “who can play it real”and she is surprisingly natural in the role, alternately evincing the radiant glow of the newly in love and the pained reactions of the socially outcast while in her thin incarnation. She’s shot mostly from behind when carrying the extra pounds, however, probably because the artificial bulk doesn’t wear so well on her face. But with or without fat suits, no one in Shallow Hal ends up looking very good.
The final 30 minutes of John Travolta’s latest movie, on the other hand, are exactly what you’d expect from a film titled Domestic Disturbance. A psychological yawner involving a sketchy stepdad and a snubbed ex, the story may be centered on a 12-year-old’s well-being, but anyone can guess that the matter will ultimately be settled mano a mano.
Frank Morrison (Travolta) is concerned about the effect that his ex-wife’s recent marriage will have on his already ill-behaved son, Danny (Matt O’Leary). Apparently not thrilled with the nuptials himself, Frank believes Danny when he claims that he witnessed new hubby Rick (Vince Vaughn) kill a man who’d been suspiciously hanging around town since the wedding. Because Danny has been known to lie and otherwise cause trouble, no one else believes him, including the ridiculously lackadaisical police force and fed-up Mom (Teri Polo).
Vaughn makes a big, mean, scary stepdadthough it’s almost funny when he says “You’re a little fucking liar, aren’t you, Danny?”and the script more than once places him where you least expect him. Travolta as a puffy, doltish dad is some truly inspired casting, though that doesn’t make his middle-aged paunch any prettier or easier to watch. Steve Buscemi, however, as usual wrings every drop of life out of a bit part, in this case Rick’s slimy friend Ray (though giving him a line such as “You know what I’m noticing? I haven’t seen any adult bookstores in this town” might be overkill as far as establishing his character), and his exit halfway through the film is a disappointment.
I’d say that Domestic Disturbance is all downhill afterward, but that might suggest that it had some upward momentum to begin with. By the time the inevitable big battle comes around, Ray won’t be the only one wishing for a little more action. CP