This is a surprisingly solid little romantic comedy with a simple message that manages to convey a sense of sweetness that lingers on even after the film hits the end credits.
The film has a very basic premise: what if beauty REALLY isn't skin deep? With this central question comes several others: What if one's appearance is the direct reflection of one's 'inner beauty', and what if somebody suddenly begins to see the world and everyone in it in exactly this way? It sounds like the recipe for a dramatic, thought-provoking, award- winning tear-jerker, but having suffered from the viewing trauma wrought by last year' Collateral Beauty (marketed to be just such a thing), I'm not so sure. What we got is a Farrelly brothers project starring 1st-time-leading-man Jack Black, and so it should only be judged for what it is, a mainstream studio film and a PG13 romantic comedy.
Such a subject matter could have easily fallen prey to a much more vulgar brand of humor , so it's refreshing to see the offensive fat jokes and cuss words kept under control here. The dialog is a little lacking in terms of memorable highlights but is otherwise fine. The film doesn't rely on cheap and abundant uses of slapstick action that has no consequence whatsoever to either the plot or the continuity within the scenes, or on visually striking wacky sidekicks to create humor (I'm thinking about you, Mr. Sandler). The 'ugly' versions of people are striking when they appear, yes, but they are not subjected to mocking or outright bullying like, well, Adam Sandler movies tended to do.
Jack Black does a nice job portraying a 'shallow' guy who undergoes an internal transformation within the main storyline, bringing his character arc to a fulfilling end. However I have wondered how prime Jim Carrey would have fared as Hal, but prime Carrey probably would command a more dominant role as THE central and therefore only truly meaningful character, and that wouldn't do since it would mean stealing the show from Gwenyth Paltrow. Paltrow gives perhaps one of her sweetest performances as the utterly self-conscious, grossly obese Rosemary, the highlight of the film for me. She manages to bring out the innocence and fragility of a down to earth (very obese) young woman who seems to know and accept the fact that she's never going to be associated with ideas such as beauty, attractive, etc, even when she's in her own slim and frankly smoking hot version. I have watched Adam Sandler's 2002 film Mr. Deeds prior to writing this review, and Winona Ryder's character in that film, in both her 'Virgin Mary' act as well as the 'I'm changed' good woman version, lacks depth when compared with Paltrow's Rosemary.
The direction overall seems spot on for the leads, and the selection of the soundtrack contribute to the overall feel of the film - lighthearted, a little silly, but sweet and even a little moving at times. Jack Black dances a lot, slim Gwenyth falls a lot, and fat Gwenyth hurts a lot, but it's the scene of the burn victim girl that stands out as a very touching human moment.
However, one may argue that the film's male gaze is sometimes too obvious for the wrong reasons. Paltrow goes semi-nude on several occasions and I'm not sure how these are supposed to work with the dating couples in the audiences. The films settling with fat=ugly 99% of the time also needed some polishing. Jill's character feels like wasted potential. She's the only 'pretty' pretty woman in the story, she witnesses Hal's transformation first hand, but she's reduced to a cheap plot device at the end of Act 2 as the 'coincidence' that Rosemary stumbles into. Since its revealed that Jill's actually a nice person because she disliked the original, 'shallow' Hal, then surely we could do without the 'let's go to my bed tonight' seduction just to somehow contrast her with the saint like Rosemary. I feel that Jill' character should be better developed and more involved with the main storyline. I even think that a scene showing Jill and Rosemary meeting and talking about Hal could be great.
I can see why the film has middling reviews from both critics and the general viewing public. Even after a slow start, the story drags on at times, the humor isn't that funny, and the dialog is average. I first watched this film back in 05, with Chinese subtitles, when I was a high schooler in Beijing. More than a decade later, as an exec in the film industry, I gave this another try and am pleasantly surprised to find that it still moved me at several places. It could be the universality of its subject matter. Not many American comedies can to more than merely entertain the international audience, but this one pulled it off. Hence my rating, a very solid 7.