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Under the Influence 

Spellbound in Shallow Hal and A Matter of Taste

Wednesday, Nov 7 2001
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Shallow Hal is your mother‘s Farrelly Brothers movie, an old-fashioned romantic comedy bearing the message that your parents, assuming they were up to the job, drilled into you: Handsome is as handsome does; beauty is skin-deep; it’s character, not packaging, that matters. Except that the movie also makes much of one stupendously fat woman and other peculiarly proportioned people, including a grown man with spina bifida who walks on all fours and hails a woman with the greeting “At your cervix.”

Business as usual? Not quite. Light on sexual innuendo and bodily-function yuks -- a discretion for which it has been rewarded with a PG-13 -- Shallow Hal is Shrek for grown-ups, a fairy tale right down to its reverse-Cinderella plot, which turns on a frog prince who, under the influence of a spell, sees his princess for both what she is (smart, funny, brave) and what she‘s not (thin, gorgeous). When the scales fall from Hal’s eyes, he faces the kind of dilemma commonly encountered on after-school specials.

Hal Larsen (Jack Black), who‘s no Adonis himself, and who comes burdened with sorely deficient parental models, is squandering his life with his even less prepossessing friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander), in futile pursuit of beautiful women who won’t give them the time of day. An impromptu hypnosis session with outsize motivational guru Tony Robbins, who mugs himself with the happy cluelessness that clings to every non-actor lucky enough to be roped into a Farrelly movie, results in Hal waking up to the inner grace of those around him -- which, being shallow, he sees as physical beauty. Thus does his boss‘s daughter, Rosemary, visible to us as a whopping 300-pounder with giant hams for legs and droopy jowls where all four cheeks should be, appear to him as Gwyneth Paltrow. Lard becomes Paltrow: The fat suit in which she intermittently appears simultaneously sets off and liberates her from the insipid fairyland glow that’s trapped her for most of her career. Large or small, Rosemary is a catch, and Paltrow plays her with a casual gallantry that extends to performing her own stunts.

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Both Paltrow and Black, who‘s tamped way down from his hysterical music-store clerk in High Fidelity, obey the basic rule of Farrelly comedy, which requires that actors play outrageous situations absolutely straight. That’s what makes the Farrellys‘ movies at once so funny, so humane and, against all odds, so believable. In There’s Something About Mary, you had permission to split your sides over the electrocution of a dog so long as it occurred within the context of a genuinely percolating romance between Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz. The only Farrelly film that didn‘t work for me was Me, Myself and Irene, and then only because Jim Carrey, forever stuck in full throttle, is the only Farrelly lead who’s incapable of convincing an audience that he‘s a real person, let alone someone you could actually like. There’s a sweet-tempered egalitarianism to the Farrelly Brothers‘ work, coupled with an anarchic joy in taking material from wherever it presents itself. Shallow Hal was written with the Farrellys by Sean Moynihan, a retired software-marketing executive with whom they’d struck up a correspondence. Unlike Carrey or his fellow trampler on bourgeois refinement Eddie Murphy, the Farrellys contrive to be gross without being mean. Walt, the man with spina bifida, is played by a retired IBM executive who really has the condition, and one of the movie‘s most delightful jokes is not that Walt walks on all fours, but that he’s the movie‘s only superstud, beloved of every woman he meets.

Whether Shallow Hal has legs comparable to Shrek’s remains to be seen. Those gross-out freaks for whom a Farrelly film lives or dies by the composition of Cameron Diaz‘s hair gel may feel that this time the brothers have let the side down. But then, that demographic is unlikely under any conditions to warm to the argument advanced in Shallow Hal and Shrek, that a woman doesn’t have to turn herself into a rake in order to love and be loved. Anorexics take note -- and take popcorn.

Of all the abuses of power, none has quite the twisted allure of the master-slave relationship, a bond that‘s hysterically co-dependent, pure in its drive for mutually assured destruction and -- in French director Bernard Rapp’s creepy, ghoulishly funny and, finally, touching new film -- perversely aristocratic in defying the leveling claims of modernity. In A Matter of Taste, power springs conventionally enough from class and wealth, but the currency of seduction is madly French. Frederic Delamont (Bernard Giraudeau), a filthy-rich, fastidiously refined businessman with dead eyes and some entertaining food phobias, hires as his personal food taster a young waiter possessed of few assets beyond his pretty-boy looks (his supercilious charm hints at the young Jeremy Irons) and an uncannily precise palate. Against the advice of his girlfriend, Beatrice (Florence Thomassin), a proletarian free spirit fortified with a robust dislike of the upper classes, Nicolas (Jean-Pierre Lorit) moves in with Delamont. With only the most feeble of protests, Nicolas allows himself to be broken down and made over in his new boss‘s image, right down to the ritzy wardrobe and a preference for tripe nurtured by Delamont’s surly private chef, played by Charles Berling, who co-starred with Giraudeau in Ridicule.

Adapted from Philippe Balland‘s novel by Rapp and Gilles Taurand (Taurand also wrote the screenplay for Raoul Ruiz’s magnificent interpretation of Proust‘s Time Regained), A Matter of Taste retains a literary way with time. We know the outcome of the diseased relationship from the beginning; the action, such as it is, weaves between flashback and the testimony of those who know Delamont or his prey, delivered to a grim-faced lawyer played by that still-delectable ruin Jean-Pierre Leaud. With its satirical treatment of food (the movie may put you off lobster for life), A Matter of Taste provides a long-overdue send-up of French culinary perfectionism.

Still, the movie is a love story -- a sick attraction to be sure, mutually exploitative, insanely frustrating and homoerotic in the most closeted way -- but a love story nonetheless, and tragic to boot. Shooting primarily in close-up, Rapp quietly imprisons us in the muffled claustrophobia and insidious unease that bind the two men together even while exhausting them both. Outside Delamont’s mansion lies the noisy rush of Nicolas‘ humdrum life. Inside, a padded hush prevails, at once heaven and hell to two lonely narcissists locked in a dance of hate -- and an overwhelming longing for oneness -- that can only destroy them. “I wanted to see how far I would go,” the hapless Nicolas laments to an appalled Beatrice on one of his many attempts to flee the tormentor who alternately bullies and seduces him into submission. He’s not alone: The terror, and the excitement of these two, and all who seek such futile unions, is that one never knows for sure who‘s the spider and who’s the fly. In sadomasochism, Rapp shows us, a good time is had by all until someone tries to get democratic -- or worse, even.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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