With the possible exception of the legendarily bad Pootie Tang, I don’t know when I’ve gone to review a movie — even just to see a movie — more thoroughly prepared to hate it than Shallow Hal. And I don’t believe I have ever come out of one with my preconceptions so utterly shattered by what I saw. Having been subjected to so much of the Farrelly Brothers’ work that seemed ever more desperate to regain the status There’s Something About Mary afforded them, I was prepared for the usual Farrelly freak show with caricatures passing for characters and the almost signature wrong-headed attempt to somehow expect the viewer to connect with these caricatures emotionally. The film’s trailer was certainly no help, making the film look like a tasteless, offensive one-joke affair. Pre-release speculation that the film tended to have a message contrary to appearances sounded like a hollow excuse for 105 minutes of fat jokes. And, yep, the fat jokes are there — 90% of them are in the trailer — but, amazingly, they very much aren’t the point of the film and, in fact, are all turned around within the course of the movie in such a shrewd manner that the viewer may well find himself more than a little ashamed for having laughed at them. Shallow Hal, while essentially a comedy, is at bottom a bare-knuckled punch in the face of a society that dictates what we should and shouldn’t find desirable and how we miss the best this world has to offer by allowing ourselves to have these things imprinted on our psyches without question. Hal (Jack Black in easily the best performance of his career) is a man who has been literally traumatized into the pursuit of surface beauty. At the age of nine, he’s told by his dying father — a minister, no less — never to settle for anything average, especially when it comes to amatory matters. The dying minister rhapsodizes about various aspects of female anatomy, and even claims that all of this is in the Bible! Not realizing that this is the foundation for his entire approach to life, Hal carries this idea — fostered no doubt by advertising, movies, and TV — into adulthood. At least, he does until he gets stuck in an elevator with self-help guru Tony Robbins (unselfconsciously playing himself), who “de-hypnotizes” him so that he sees the “inner beauty” in the women he meets, whereupon he meets Rosemary Shanahan, a bright, caring, funny 300-pound woman, who looks to Hal like nothing short of Gwyneth Paltrow, which isn’t surprising since Paltrow plays Rosemary as Hal sees her. Actually, it turns out to go a lot deeper than that. Hal cannot only see that, but he can see the same inner beauty in men, in children, etc. And, in a remarkable and surprisingly deft move, he can also see the inner ugliness in the outwardly attractive. There is a lot more going on in Shallow Hal than anyone had any right or reason to expect, as it veers along its delightfully convoluted plot, touching on subjects that supposedly (sorry) weightier films wouldn’t touch. The “inner beauty” concept (“Inner beauty isn’t that hard to find if you look for it,” says Robbins) sounds facile and cliched, but as presented here, it’s anything but. For once, the Farrellys give us real characters we come to genuinely care about — and in whom we can see ourselves. Shallow Hal asks us to take stock in ourselves and rethink a lot of our own notions, and not just about others, but about ourselves. There’s a genuine emotional resonance to the picture, so that by the time Hal asks, “If you can see it and smell it and feel it, who’s to say it’s not real?” it’s more than the flat bromide it might easily have been. Even though the Farrelly directorial style remains somewhat indifferent, the results are light-years away from anything they have done before. Stylistically, Shallow Hal relies on a spare, almost off-hand, approach, which may have been for the best, since it’s so thematically rich. For a topper, the boys prove — probably by accident — the truth to the old Noel Coward adage about the “poignancy of cheap music” by incorporating the bubble-gum jauntiness of one-hit-wonder Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” in a moving and satisfying manner. It’s a beautiful final touch to one of the nicest surprises of the season.