By Tom Gliatto
November 19, 2001 12:00 PM

Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow

Actually, we know from the start of this unexpectedly sweet comedy that Hal isn’t shallow at all. In fact, as a boy he was emotionally traumatized by his father’s death. Zonked out on a morphine drip, the Reverend Larsen tells little Hal, teary and confused, that what matters in life is having sex with good-looking women. And so the grownup Hal (Black), nothing special in the looks department, wastes his time hitting on gorgeous women who swat him away like some large, hairy fly. Then one day he gets trapped in an elevator with self-empowerment guru Tony Robbins (playing himself). Robbins performs a jiffy-quick, mental-whammy therapy: Henceforth Hal will be turned on by inner beauty.

Enter Rosemary, a hospital volunteer. Slim and lovely with large, solemn eyes, she is like some heavenly combination of a Vogue model and a weeping willow. Hal falls in love, but this vision is only in his mind’s eye. Everyone else, including Rosemary, sees all her 300 pounds. No one else, including Rosemary, can believe Hal truly adores her.

Paltrow plays Rosemary both as Hal’s idealization and (packed into an enormous foam-latex suit for a few scenes) the overweight reality. Rosemary is cautiously reserved, thoughtful and, on occasion, subtly sarcastic. “What Paltrow has done here is strip Rosemary down to her core element: a stoic, patient dignity earned through her own traumas. It’s an excellent performance. As Hal, Black supplies the energy. A scene-stealing mix of puppyish bounce and acid humor, Black (High Fidelity) is like John Candy in a compact model.

Because Hal was written and directed by the Farrelly brothers Peter and Bobby (There’s Something About Mary), there are many vulgar sight gags about weight and other aspects of human anatomy. But Hal, written with Sean Moynihan, is smaller, simpler, subtler (and slower) than their earlier films. Thanks to Paltrow, it’s one of the year’s best comedies. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: A beauty