The Farrelly brothers have a problem. For years they've been hammered for creating gut-exploding comedies with all the PC qualities of the collected works of Jim Davidson. The old, the fat, the deformed, the mentally afflicted.... all came in for a sound kicking. The boys were bad, but they were funny too. "Were"? Well yes, `cos if Shallow Hal is anything to go by, they've finally learnt to play nice with the other children, but they've sacrificed their comic edge to do it.
High Fidelity's Jack Black is Hal, a man totally obsessed with physical appearance. Then a chance meeting with a self-help guru gives him the ability to see only people's inner beauty. He promptly falls for the 300-pound Rosemary because, in his eyes, she's the most beautiful girl in the world. Or Gwyneth Paltrow to you and me...
The film's core conceit is that while Jack sees Rosemary as slim and lovely, to everyone else she looks like a beached whale. It's cleverly done (Paltrow blubbered up by wearing a prosthetic suit) but while it's mildly amusing the first time Paltrow chows down on a huge cheeseburger, after a dozen repetitions of the same joke you're begging for something different.
What you get instead of fast-paced gaggery is actually a rather sweet love story. Black makes a surprisingly effective goofy romantic lead and plays some enjoyably tender scenes with Paltrow. But Shallow Hal often feels like a strained attempt by the makers to compensate for the lack of taste in their other films. Apart from his obsession with looks, Hal's an all-around good guy, quick to help others and staunch in his defence of his girlfriend. Rosemary, and the other superficially "ugly" characters, are all lovely people inside. The film is just crammed with sweet, likeable folk. And it's a sad truth that nice guys are just never as funny as out-and-out bastards...
A little less nice and a lot more nasty would have made Shallow Hal twice the film. Light and sweet it may be, but it's a rom-com undeniably lacking in com.