Have the Farrelly Brothers worn out their welcome, lost a step, or are they simply suffering from growing pains? In their patterned exploration and exploitation of human frailties, the Farrellys have rarely lacked audacity. It's been their saving grace while also serving as the lightning rod of their criticism. They've been merry pranksters in an increasingly oversensitive cultural climate, and yet, wanting to have it both ways, they've also snuck in surprising shades of dignity to their proceedings.
Yes, they've wallowed in literal human dysfunction, be it the dimwits of Dumb and Dumber, the amputee of Kingpin, the mentally retarded boy of There's Something About Mary, or the multiple personality disorder tormenting Jim Carrey's Charlie Baileygates in Me, Myself & Irene. But as they've progressed, the Farrellys have themselves become like Baileygates -- crazed one moment, tender the next -- perhaps for the sake of balance, or respectability, or whatever. That balance was no better displayed than in There's Something About Mary, where they could deftly attach mentally retarded jokes to a despicable character and show the affected boy's charm and humanity seemingly at once. They truly seemed to be able to have their cake and eat it, too, regardless of whether that was the intent.
But with Me, Myself & Irene and their most recent effort, Shallow Hal, the brothers seem to be on a downward slope, striving more for sincerity and less for bathroom humor. The jokes aren't as crude, the enemies aren't so menacing, the good guys not too far out of reach of redemption. So it goes with Shallow Hal, a movie that is shallow indeed, which wouldn't be such a big deal if the Farrellys had made it five years ago. This time, it is appearance that is the object of the filmmakers' alternating jokes and love, mostly when it comes to fat people, but dysfunction is everywhere. When they aren't offering viewers (too-rare) glimpses of Hal's romantic interest Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) in her true, 300-pound splendor, they include a death-bed-thin nurse or Hal's friend, Walt, who has spina bifida (Rene Kirby) and clomps around in self-deprecating fashion on all fours.
But instead of bellying up to the humor trough and lapping away, the Farrellys pull back at virtually every turn, save for the obligatory fat jokes that had to be put into the script by Peter Farrelly and Sean Moynihan. What would have been the point of making the film if they hadn't? ("Does she take the cake?! She takes the whole bakery!") But the insensitivity comes more from peripheral characters and not Hal, played by Jack Black in what for him must be second gear. After rightfully making a name for himself as a psycho-intensely funnyman in parts large (High Fidelity, Saving Silverman) and small (Jesus' Son), Black's being groomed for comic stardom. But in order to get there, he seems to tame his act for the romantic-comedy genre in the same way that was so effective for Ben Stiller in Mary.
Black has his moments, of course, which says something about his talent -- whether he's doing his spastic dance routine while schmoozing the babes at a disco or describing the perfect woman. "I mean, I like a girl who's into culture and shit," he concludes after building a physical composite of Heidi Klum, Paulina Poroskova and whatever downloadable supermodel he can conjure.
Instead, after a run-in with real-life motivational speaker Tony Robbins (playing it straight for a laugh, thankfully), Hal is hypnotized into seeing only the inner beauty of women. This makes the 300-pound Rosemary look like Gwyneth Paltrow, whose lowered head, hesitant squints and double takes comes as close as a beautiful actress can get to insecurity. Her utter incredulity at Hal's shortness of breath at her perceived beauty is one of the film's handful of charms. Her underused wit shines through, especially in a scene where she meets Hal's equally unrealistic and insensitive friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander, who should stick to sitcoms). "Is that a Member's Only jacket?" she asks of the hairpiece-topped Mauricio. "So what are you, the last member?"
But just like most moviegoers, the Farrellys can't get enough of Paltrow's physical beauty. Rosemary might break chairs with her unseen girth, but then the camera lingers over her splayed legs and other attributes. The Farrellys prefer to savor Paltrow's beauty more than her character's supposed charms, and while it's a critical sin to say what a movie doesn't have, it would have been nice to show more of the fatter Rosemary's inner charms instead of asking Paltrow to do all the work.
And so it goes, with Hal seducing Rosemary only to have a peeved Mauricio convince Tony Robbins to break the spell so his friend can see the light, only to have Hal realize what a fool he's been and set about winning his girl back, milkshakes and all.
Cool. People are good. Now, waitress, could I have some humor on my pizza, to go?
- Off balance: Jack Black (right) woos Gwyneth Paltrow in the Farrelly Brothers' latest, Shallow Hal.