Shallow Hal (2001)

(On TV, February 2015)  There is a surprising strain of magical realism in mainstream movie comedies, where a seemingly unexplainable premise in a contemporary context is explored for laughs even though the film itself is never seen as belonging to the fantasy genre.  Shallow Hal is a good example of this, as it posits a man hypnotized to perceive the inner beauty of someone rather than their surface appearance.  This quickly leads our shallow protagonist to become romantically involved with a grossly obese woman who is perceived as… Gwyneth Paltrow.  Various gags revolve around the difference between reality and perception (or, more accurately, how physical reality strains to accommodate the protagonist’s delusion and how more objective observers also react), leading to a third act where reality finally sets in.  It’s, as you may expect from a mainstream comedy even in the gross-out late-stage, a relatively sweet film whose more outrageous moments are in the service of an unobjectionably “don’t judge by appearances” morality.  It feels serviceable and predictable at one welcome exception, where one ugly character makes it through our protagonist’s distorted perception… and is revealed to be beautiful but evil in reality.  It’s a good moment, and Shallow Hal certainly could have used more of those second-order extrapolations over much of the reheated pap it serves throughout the film.  Jack Black is OK in the lead role, Gwyneth Paltrow appealing as the object of his affections (less so in a fat suit but that’s the point of the film) and Tony Robbins makes a good cameo appearance.  The film’s third act is a bit duller as it goes for emotional significance over jokes, but that’s also something in the nature of comedies.  The final result has a few highlights that help it distinguish itself from so many other movies of the time.

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