Finding the Inner Gwyneth

Shallow Hal is a deeply humanist gross-out comedy; Heist is a deeply paranoid thriller.

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The premise of Shallow Hal (20th Century Fox), the new comedy from the Farrelly brothers, is deceptively simple, and deceptively simple surfaces are its subject. The title character (Jack Black), a man who judges people (particularly females) on the basis of their appearance, is hypnotized into seeing only their “inner beauty”: Thus, a woman of massive obesity, Rosemary, becomes in Hal’s eyes a willowy goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow). His exuberant love affair, meanwhile, is a source of revulsion to his buddy, Mauricio (Jason Alexander), who, along with the rest of the world, observes Rosemary in all her earth-shaking avoirdupois.

This is a complicated—and traumatic—conceit for cinema, a largely superficial medium, and an especially challenging one for lowbrow comedy, the most brazenly superficial of its genres. You can peddle “inner beauty” platitudes in moist dramas like Marty (1955), Mask (1985), and Muriel’s Wedding (1994), and even in moist melodramas like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Elephant Man (1980). But the Farrellys have set themselves the awesome task of arguing passionately for the non-importance of appearance while at the same time making relentless sport of it. The happy news is that they pull it off: In Shallow Hal, they’ve contrived a deeply humanist gross-out comedy.

It isn’t wholly unprecedented, as the brothers, Peter and Bobby, have always worn their humanism like loud plaid sports jackets. Yes, I’m talking about the guys who ushered in a new era of scatological comedy with Dumb andDumber (1994) and There’s Something About Mary (1998)—slapstick farces in which cretinous males unable to control their bodily fluids obsessively pursue leggy blondes. Even at the brothers’ crudest, however, the proportion of empathy to mockery is about 60-40; and when someone genuinely disabled or abnormally sized shows up (and they always show up in Farrelly movies), the balance shifts to 80-20. That 20 isn’t negligible—it’s a shock to see spastic jokes performed by, say, actual spastics. But the underlying impulse, I’ve always felt, is a compassionate one: to make the disabled part of the same continuum as the rest of us poor bastards, laboring to make do with what God the jokester has bestowed on us.

The most glaring deficiency of their films is that their gaze remains stubbornly that of an adolescent male: A universe of nerdy boys (and nerdy boys at heart) chasing the likes of Lauren Holly, Cameron Diaz, and Heather Graham leaves out a sizable percentage of the population—i.e., women of more terrestrial proportions. My hunch is that Shallow Hal is an attempt to redress that imbalance without losing their audience, which accounts for both Gwyneth at her most jaw-droppingly adorable and Gwyneth in a fat-suit (plus, from the rear, an obvious body double whose jiggling girth is no special effect). The Farrellys haven’t exactly abandoned their “shallow” standards of female beauty—these represent comically broad extremes. But they’re trying to explore their culturally reinforced aesthetic in a language they know best. It’s a start. More important, it’s funny and sweet.

From where do the laughs in Shallow Hal come? From bizarre—and bizarrely poignant—incongruities: Hal’s confusion when Rosemary crashes through sundry restaurant chairs (what inexcusably shoddy craftsmanship!) and consumes heaping plates of fatty food (where does it all go?); the swan Paltrow’s wittily observed ugly-duckling mannerisms, which rest on the assumption that few people want to look at her and those who do will either jeer or feel pity; and from irrational truths, like the all-consuming impulse of dork Jason Alexander (in a toupee like a moss-covered yarmulke) to dump a supermodel-sultry girlfriend because one of her toes is too long. (I admit to having once or twice become distracted by minor, meaningless physical defects in women more prepossessing than I am. What’s that about?) The laughs come from the sheer discomfort (shame? fear?) of ogling Paltrow’s long thighs and curvy rear-end, only to see the character, in the next shot, metamorphose into a wobbly mountain of flesh. (“Doesn’t she take the cake?” says Hal. “She takes the whole bakery,” says Mauricio.)

Shallow Hal has its share of clunkers, like Hal’s friend with no torso (Rene Kirby, who was born with spina bifida) exclaiming—after he has just sold his company for a fortune to Bill Gates—that he’d wipe his ass with 20s … if he had an ass. But maybe lines like that are supposed to clunk, to make us grimace. In a Farrelly movie, we’re always in borderline territory. Soon after he has been hypnotized (by self-help guru Tony Robbins), Hal dances at a club with some hotties, who turn out to be—when viewed through his friends’ eyes—either fat or hatchet-faced. Is it hypocritical for filmmakers to use physical ugliness as a gag when their theme is its irrelevance? Maybe, but I’m not sure what other choices, given the movie’s premise, they have. And for better or worse, this is the language of Hollywood cinema: It’s no use pretending that we want (or should want) to watch unattractive people on screen. The vexing issue is the chilling inelasticity of standards of beauty, especially for women—which the Farrellys at least acknowledge by poking fun at the disparity between Black and the glamour-girls he lusts after.

A more disarming criticism of Shallow Hal is that it’s—in the judgment of a colleague—”sanctimonious.” A case can be made that the movie is too sweet and generous to be as funny as other Farrelly films and that its resolution overlooks the fact that you can’t always look past appearances, especially when it comes to sexual desire. True enough, but Shallow Hal is a fairy tale—not to mention a PG-13, which it means it can be seen by the biggest “lookist” bigots on earth: high-school students. And consider that it grapples with an issue that Hollywood—where stunning actresses are often cast as Plain Janes—is congenitally afraid to go near. Given its laughs, wonderful performances, and decent sentiment (I admit, the ending made me cry), I don’t mind a little sanctimony with this particular cake. Or should I say, bakery?

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As a director of film, David Mamet gets more and more assured. On the evidence of Heist (Warner Bros.), he can now turn out a credible crime thriller, one in which the camera doesn’t freeze for his every stilted line—or series of stilted lines, repeated and reshuffled—and the performers don’t wear the stiff, anxious expressions that come from knowing the writer is just off-camera monitoring their every pause and inflection. With an actor as great as Gene Hackman in the lead, a lot of scenes even breathe. Hackman would never stand for Mamet’s usual stopwatch tactics: He has his own rhythms, his own unstable chemistry—a bubbling mixture of affability and rage. Think of it: a Mamet movie with a living center.

But there is nothing to be done with Mamet’s worldview, which is so paranoid that it’s a wonder he can get out of bed. Everyone schemes; the more elevated souls scheme the most frankly. No scheme can be executed without a double-cross, and no double-cross can be executed without anticipating a double-double-cross or a triple-cross. After two hours I got tired of keeping track of who had which cards up his or her sleeve and passed the time thinking about the director’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon. Having failed to make her an international sex symbol via her weird performances in his last three movies, Mamet has now resorted to squeezing her into short-shorts and making sure that the camera hugs her butt. But he still can’t bring himself to write her a part in which you’re not always wondering whether the character is a duplicitous whore.

One thing Mamet does better than anyone—Mission: Impossible type conspiracies, with witty ways of sneaking in and out of airports, hiding contraband, and anticipating the moves of cops and/or other crooks. Should the FBI and the bureau of domestic terrorism ever put him on the payroll, I’ll sleep more easily.