Dirs: Bobby and Peter Farrelly. US 2001. 113mins.

Bobby and Peter Farrelly, masters of the outrageous and gross-out comedy (Dumb And Dumber, There's Something About Mary) take an artistic step backwards with Shallow Hal, a soft, disappointingly sentimental comedy about the true nature of beauty, or the gap between physical surfaces and inner essences. Small in scale, and extremely modest in style, the film benefits from an attractive performance by Gwyneth Paltrow as the object of desire for an ordinary guy, credibly played by character actor Jack Black (High Fidelity) in his first lead role. Fox should expect solid if not spectacular returns for a feature that is weaker than most of the siblings' former efforts. The picture yielded $23 million in its US opening weekend where it assumed second place at the box office to Disney's Monsters, Inc.

The comedy, scripted by the Farrellys and their partner Sean Moynihan, begins well with a hospital scene between a young boy named Hal and his dying father, who instructs his son never to settle for less than the perfect woman. Cut to the present, where a grown-up Hal (Black), having been brainwashed by his father (and the mass media), finds beauty only in supermodels and centrefolds. The first thing Hal looks for in a woman is not just appearance but also perfect statistics, particularly when it comes to her bosom. He and his equally mediocre-looking pal, Mauricio (Alexander), are quick to spot the tiniest imperfection in gorgeous women. It's also all that they talk about - and the subject upon which their superficial friendship is based.

Things change dramatically after Hal accidentally meets self-help guru Tony Robbins (Robbins, parodying his public image) at an office elevator. An impromptu hypnosis by Robbins forces Hal to make a radical transformation in the way he sees women's beauty, focusing on their inner selves rather than physical appearances. His new philosophy is immediately put to the test upon encountering Rosemary (Paltrow), an overweight Peace Corps volunteer who works in a hospital for sick children.

Hal is instantly smitten by her and an idyllic romance begins, one in which Hal envisions Rosemary's kindness and humour as female physical nirvana. The gimmick is that, subjectively, Hal sees Rosemary as a slender and sexy blonde (the way Paltrow really is), whereas in we, the audience, view Rosemary more objectively as a morbid obese. Hence, when the spell is broken and Hal is no longer open-minded, he must face the frumpy, unrecognisable (to him) Rosemary and learn a valuable lesson: never judge people by their looks.

While in production, Shallow Hal received a lot of publicity because it required Paltrow to spend hours in the make-up room, wearing a fat suit that will make her convincing as a 300-pound woman. For a while, the Farrellys bring out humour, based on Hal's perceptual gap - and Rosemary's endless physical mishaps. Rosemary keeps falling from chairs in restaurants, and when the two go canoeing, she tips Hal's end of the boat out of the water. In one of the film's funniest gags, Rosemary also dives into a pool and splashes enough water to throw a swimmer into a tree.

Some of the vaudevillian slapstick and visual gags are hilarious, but the Farrellys are not particularly deft directors (technically, the feature is wretched). Their staging is broad and they do not know how to orchestrate sight puns so that they will pay off both visually and emotionally in the way that say Blake Edwards did in the better Pink Panther comedies.

The Farrelly want to play it both ways, to have their cake and eat it too. For most of the film, the large-size Rosemary is seen from behind, or at a distance. Only in the last reel does Hal have to face Rosemary and her threatening father (Viterelli), who is the owner of the company he works for. Furthermore, there is something disingenuous about the whole enterprise, which is characteristic of Hollywood pictures when it comes to the deglamorisation of beautiful women. The Farrellys have always worked with the sexiest female stars around: Cameron Diaz (There's Something About Mary), Rene Zellweger (Me, Myself, And Irene) and now Paltrow. Much in the same way that Julia Roberts was "compelling" in wearing a fat suit in America's Sweethearts, subjecting these slender, golden beauties to physical deformity and psychological humiliation is tolerated by the public because they know that it's a temporary malaise: the ugly duckling-turned-swan syndrome. Now try to imagine Shallow Hal with actresses like Kathy Bates or Camryn Manheim (Happiness) and the entire meaning of the film changes.

The last thing the audience expects of the Farrellys is for them to become mushy and earnest. After all, these are the guys who made Jeff Daniels deal with the intestinal aftershocks of a powerful laxative in Dumb And Dumber, and Ben Stiller get his "beans and franks" painfully caught in his zipper and Cameron Diaz sport organic "hair gel" for There's Something About Mary. To be sure, there was always niceness and geniality at the core of the brothers' comedies, but the smalltown America values were latent or submerged in rudely and wickedly nasty yarns that dissected with sharp visual and verbal humour the overweight, the misshapen and the disfigured.

The Farrellys claim that Shallow Hal is their "most emotional" film, representing a new direction in their work with its focus on "a guy who finds his soul and realises what's truly important." But for the rest of us, Shallow Hal is a message comedy propagating values that are too obvious and sappy.

Pro co: A 20th Century Fox release of a Conundrum Entertainment
US dist: Fox
Int'l dist: Fox Int'l
Prods: Bradley Thomas, Charles B Wessler, Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Scr: Sean Moynihan, Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Prod des: Sidney J Bartholomew Jr.
Ed: Christopher Greenbury
Music: Ivy
Main cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jack Black, Jason Alexander, Joe Viterelli, Rene Kirby, Tony Robbins