Deep message gets beached on rocky premise of 'Shallow Hal'

The Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary," "Me, Myself & Irene"), masters of mean-spirited but sometimes funny comedy, make a grave miscalculation with "Shallow Hal": They remembered to be mean-spirited at least part of the time (in between bouts of sentimentality), but forgot the comedy altogether.

Consider this: At one point in this movie, one character says to another, "I hope you like bean dip." And that's that. No gross humor, no discussion of bodily functions, nothing except somebody sincerely hoping that someone else likes bean dip. Hello — is this a Farrelly movie?

Even worse, "Shallow Hal" involves its main character learning an Important Life Lesson, and Becoming a Better Man. This is tolerable from some directors (although not many), but certainly not from the men who brought new meaning to the words "hair gel."

"Shallow Hal"

With Gwyneth Paltrow, Jack Black, Jason Alexander, Joe Viterelli, Rene Kirby, Susan Ward. Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, from a screenplay by Sean Moynihan, Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly. 113 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language and sexual content. Several theaters.

In "Shallow Hal," we meet the title character (Jack Black, sporting absurd sideburns), a very shallow guy indeed, who is hypnotized by self-help guru Tony Robbins (playing himself, rather puzzlingly — does he really need the money?) and suddenly able to see inner beauty. Enter Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a very heavy young woman who is visible to Hal — but only Hal — as slender and gorgeous. Hal's quickly smitten, to the consternation of his best pal Mauricio (Jason Alexander, in a hideous rug).

In early ads and trailers for "Shallow Hal," it all looked like a lengthy fat joke, with shots of Paltrow (or a double) in a fat suit eliciting laughs from audiences. The movie, however, bends over backward to be inoffensive: Its message of seeing inner beauty is a perfectly nice one, and Rosemary (buoyed by a surprisingly sweet, gentle performance from Paltrow) is a lovely character toward whom the audience immediately feels protective.

But the problems here are twofold: a) All this sweet, inoffensive stuff is actually pretty boring (and out of the range of Black, whose eyebrow-waggling shtick is better suited to comic-sidekick roles); and b) The Farrellys can't quite stick to it. A certain mean-spiritedness keeps peeking through, with poor Rosemary always breaking chairs in restaurants, or chowing down on enormous meals, or displaying really big underwear. This is funny (well, it's supposed to be funny) because it's the model-thin Paltrow who we see. Played by an overweight actress, the scenes would have a decidedly nasty flavor.

"Shallow Hal" presses home the message that it's the heart of a person that counts, not the exterior. But if that's the case, why is every slightly odd-looking person in the movie used as a target for laughs? And why is the physical definition of beauty in the film such a limited one? And is it really true that only unattractive people join the Peace Corps?

"Shallow Hal" certainly can't support the weight of these questions, but pondering them helped me pass the time, while waiting for the comedy that never came.

Moira Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2725 or