Their delight in doody, zits, and distressed scrotums notwithstanding, the moviemaking brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly are a pair of softies Norman Rockwell might admire. Farrelly pictures are, famously, contraptions of gross-out one-upmanship, remembered for punchlines that put the gag reflex in sight gags. But the gooey center of their comedies, going back to their 1994 debut, ”Dumb and Dumber,” has always been a thick amalgam of geniality, loyalty, and tolerance — patriotic, small-town virtues from a couple of Rhode Island guys who remain true to their buddies, even while attracting big and bigger stars to their distinctive comedies.
It’s an acquired taste, this piquant mixture of sharp shock and loose pacing — and meanwhile, the Farrellys have been changing the recipe on us. Both ”There’s Something About Mary” and ”Me, Myself & Irene” were about imperfect, funny men made whole by adoring and adorable blond women, but the non-comedy stretches in Irene were of a more melancholy, heavier texture than the non-comedy stretches of ”Mary.” There’s something about girlfriends — perhaps, an old-fashioned, respectful aw-shucksiness — that tames the Farrelly beasts. At any rate, something is happening to our boys: They’re getting mushy. Shallow Hal is not so much about how gross people are as how beautiful they are once you get beyond the rude, noisy flesh. It’s a sermon wrapped in a fat suit.
Which is not to say the filmmakers don’t still poke fun where Norman Rockwell would never tread. Here, the joke’s on the overweight, the misshapen, the disfigured, and the homely. But the bigger joke is clearly on jerks (men, mostly) who would reject people (women, mostly) based solely on looks. And none is more of a jerk than single guy Hal Larsen (Jack Black), who, with his fellow bachelor buddy Mauricio (Jason Alexander), demands physical perfection in any woman he’d ever date. Never mind that Hal is eminently average-looking, maybe 10 degrees less geeky than the Ugly Guy character of ”Walking and Talking”’s Kevin Corrigan. Or that Mauricio wears a terrifying toupee that looks like a tongue of brown velveteen. Their own physical mediocrity doesn’t prevent these shlubs from cataloging the tiny imperfections in supermodels.
Hal’s worldview changes, though, during a chance meeting with Tony Robbins when the two are stuck in an office elevator. Hypnotized by the Lurch-like self-help swami (playing himself with all the emotional range of Larry King), Hal emerges from his trance turned on by inner beauty, rather than outer packaging. And when he meets warm, funny, empathetic Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Peace Corps worker who also volunteers with sick children in a hospital, he’s smitten by her radiance. In his eyes, Rosemary is beautiful, golden, everything that Paltrow has come to represent in the pages of In Style. In the eyes of anyone else, meanwhile, she’s obese.
The Farrellys reel off some easy jokes at Rosemary’s expense — she goes canoeing with Hal and tips his end of the boat out of the water, she does a cannonball dive into a pool and displaces enough water to shoot a young swimmer into a tree — but they’re after a different kind of chuckle. Laughing at the disparity between Hal’s perception of his beloved and ours (for much of the movie, fat Rosemary is seen only from behind, or at a distance), we’re invited to admire the filmmakers’ broadmindedness in using fat girls as joke fodder. More than that, we’re warmly encouraged to feel the hurt that Rosemary constantly lives with, made vivid by a notably touching, sensitive performance from sylphlike Paltrow, who convincingly conveys a world of self-protection against pain. And in so doing, we’re bidden to acknowledge any shallowness of our own.
Rosemary, incidentally, isn’t merely Renée Zellweger?as?Bridget Jones plump or even Julia Roberts-in-a-moderately- fat-suit frumpy; she’s seriously, morbidly obese, tubed like Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick. This is perhaps the only way an audience can laugh comfortably — Rosemary’s mishaps are vaudevillian in size — but the story falls into sentimental disarray when Hal, no longer under a spell of open-mindedness, sees his dream girl for her real, corpulent self. And there’s further disarray to be had in the addition of Rene Kirby as Walt, a wealthy, gregarious friend of Hal’s who always gets the pretty girls even though he was born with spina bifida and sometimes propels himself on all fours. (Kirby, with spina bifida himself, is a non-pro the Farrellys collected as a friend while making ”Irene.”) On the one hand, Hal is deep enough to have a friend like Walt; on the other hand, he’s blind when it comes to girls.
And maybe the Farrellys are too. Cameron Diaz, Zellweger, and now Paltrow are some snazzy, supermodel-perfect casting catches for a couple of guys who make movies famous for scenes of sperm and dog poo. But being around pretty girls seems to make them a little goofy, a little too polite. And, ugh, such good manners can really turn a Farrelly fan off.