Hal Larson (Black) is a single guy with an unsatisfying dating life, due to the fact that — having been unconsciously traumatized by his father's death at age nine — he is one of the shallowest men in the world. Until one day when, trapped in an elevator with self-help guru Tony Robbins, he is unknowingly hypnotized so that, every time he meets someone new from that point onward, he will see their "inner beauty" instead of their real appearance.
Most notably, he meets a woman named Rosemary Shanahan (Paltrow) who, to him, looks like the most beautiful woman in the world because of her great inner beauty. In reality, however, she's extremely fat. It's not the only cognitive dissonance — far from it — but it's the one that made the trailers.
This film provides examples of:
- Accidental Kiss: No longer hypnotized and having never seen Rosemary in her true form, Hal mistakes the Shanahans' housemaid Helga for Rosemary and kisses this woman rather sloppily. Hilariously enough, Helga doesn't seem to mind.
- As Himself: Tony Robbins, Joshua "Li'iBoy" Shintani.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: The movie's premise inverts this. The better a person you are, the more attractive Hal perceives you as.
- Beauty Inversion: A number of beautiful actresses wore makeup to appear ugly outside of Hal's "Inner Beauty Vision". The directors especially took flack for casting a skinny actress like Paltrow as a fat woman, but explained that it was easier for Paltrow to fat up (with makeup and a fatsuit) than it was for a heavy actress to slim down.
- Big EaterRosemary: I'll have a double pizza burger, chili fries, and a vanilla milkshake.Hal: Nicely done! I'll have the exact same thing.
- Bitter Sweet Ending: Rosemary, still hurt from Hal's recent behavior and actions, plans on going away on a Peace Corps mission even after Hal pleads for her not to go. So he decides to go with her instead.
- Brawn Hilda: After Hal loses his Inner Beauty Vision, the rotund housemaid whom he initially mistakes for Rosemary is named Helga.
- Broken Aesop: A film with an intended Aesop about how people should not be so shallow and judge people on the kind of person they are, not by how they look on the outside, but this loses some steam considering how many fat jokes it has at Rosemary's expense. Not to mention the amount of beautiful people who now appear ugly because of their horrible personality insinuates that it's okay to continue assuming that Beauty Is Bad.
- Compliment Backfire: When Hal meets Rosemary's mother he says, "I can see where Rosemary gets her figure." He intends it as a compliment because he sees both of them as slim women, not realising they're both quite overweight.
- Contrived Coincidence: The movie is full of them, but the most prominent example is when Hal sees Rosemary for the first time (as slim-figured Gwyneth Paltrow, of course) walking into the clothing store, only to catch up with her and, after getting acquainted with her, later finding out she happens to be his boss's daughter.
- Cursed with Awesome: Basically, all the nicest and kindest people are identifiable on sight. Oh, and if you ever date one, they'll also be smoking hot.
- Cut a Slice, Take the Rest: Rosemary cuts off a "sliver" of a cake that's about as big as the whole cake, and walks off munching on it like a Pringles chip.
- Dirty Old Woman: Helga, the housemaid.
- Double Standard: Looking the way they do, Hal and Mauricio really shouldn't have such high expectations from women. Hal's coworkers ask him how he can act so shallow when he's "not that good-looking" himself. They both have legitimate Freudian Excuses for their hypocrisy, though.
- Freakiness Shame: Turns out Mauricio has a tail.
- Freudian Excuse:
- Hal is shallow because of his father's dying words about appearance.
- Mauricio is shallow because of his vestigial tail, which shames him into avoiding meaningful relationships.
- Gaussian Girl: Inverted and Subverted. After Hal's hypnosis is worn off, he puts Vaseline on his eyes to so that he won't be able to see Rosemary clearly. His vision is so blurry, he can't tell if Rosemary is attractive (to him) or not.
- Gold Digger:
- This is why Nurse Tanya Peeler, who is actually young and pretty, looks like an old crone to Hal. She's dating his friend, Walt, solely because of his money, and even confesses to Rosemary that the timing of their relationship could not have been better, just after she had broken up with her boyfriend and just after he had sold his company and had all the time in the world to go shopping with her etc etc, which is really a fancy way of saying she can now mooch off of him.
- Subverted with Hal himself as people bad-mouth him about obviously trying to suck up to his boss by dating his obese daughter and Hal can't understand why that would cross their minds.
- Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Rosemary is kind and generous with attractive inner beauty.
- Has a Type: Initially Hal constructs his ideal image of a woman from bits and pieces of celebrities.
- HeelFace Brainwashing: All Hal thought was that Tony Robbins did something to help him "score better with the ladies." He had no idea that it literally changed his vision.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness
- Jerkass Realization: After the breaking of his hypnotism, it's seeing the burned face of Cadence that inspires Hal to stop judging women by their looks and recoil with Rosemary.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
- Mauricio could almost count too, given that he develops some depth as the film goes on.
- Literal Metaphor: When Hal describes Ralph as "Pretty Boy" to Rosemary while dining at a restaurant, he also alludes to the metaphorical halo around his head to reiterate how divinely handsome and good he is. But since Rosemary is unaware of Hal's hypnosis, she tells Hal that he's the first one to ever call Ralph that, and furthermore, she thinks the "halo" he's talking about is, in fact, the psoriasis around Ralph's head, and she even tells that to Hal directly.
- Littlest Cancer Patient: A whole Pediatric Burn Unit of them.
- Meaningful Echo: "Cuckoo!"
- Minor Flaw, Major Breakup: Mauricio gives a practically perfect girl the cold shoulder, passing up an opportunity to see a Beatles reunion while George Harrison was still alive, ostensibly because one of her second toes is slightly longer than normal. Turns out however that it's because he's ashamed of his own elongated tailbone.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Mauricio after he de-hypnotizes Hal. Made worse by the fact that he lied to Tony Robbins about Hal getting fired in order to get the words needed to break the hypnosis.
- Oireland: Rosemary's father to painful levels.
- One-Book Author: This film remains Sean Moynihan's only screenwriting credit.
- Please Don't Leave Me: Hal does this towards Rosemary at the end of the film. It doesn't work, though fortunately he had a backup plan, to simply go with her instead.
- Pretty Boy: What Hal sees Ralph as.
- The Reveal: Maurcio has a vestigial tail and he broke Hal's hypnosis out of jealousy of his happiness with Rosemary.
- Running on All Fours: The character of Walt, played by Rene Kirby who has spina bifida and really does walk on all fours in real life.
- Seinfeldian Conversation: Hal and Mauricio have one.Mauricio: I'm probably more immature than you, but at least I have a bigger willie.
Hal: Yeah, bigger than a mouse's.
Mauricio: What the hell was that?
Hal: I said your willie's—
Mauricio: I heard what you said, but it took you, like, eight seconds. You can't come back with a comeback after eight seconds. You got three. Five, tops. That's why they call it a "quip," not a "slooowwwwwp."
- Stealth Insult:
Mauricio: (to Hal after he reverses the hypnosis) You weren't irresistible to women. He [Tony Robbins] hypnotized you so that really ugly girls that you met from then on would, to you, look like supermodels.
- The bulk of this movie serves to be a backhanded compliment to unattractive people, basically saying their inner beauty compensates for their outer ugliness.
- The exception to this trope, however, occurs during the scene with the little girl in the Pediatric Burn Unit at the hospital when Hal goes back the second time, looking for Rosemary. This is the defining moment in which he realizes that he doesn't need hypnosis to see the inner beauty in people.
- Even the tagline on the movie front cover comes across as this, as it says, "True love is worth the weight."
- Supernaturally Validated Trans Person: The hypnosis that allows Hal to see people's true inner selves includes the transgender hostess, whom Hal recognizes as a beautiful woman (even if she's used for an Unsettling Gender Reveal).
- Title Drop: "Shallow Hal wants a gal", the incantation Mauricio uses to break the hypnosis.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Mrs. Shanahan, though overweight, is still prettier than her husband.
- The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: Subverted. Hal sees Rosemary as a slim attractive woman but she resembles her father's figure very much.
- Unsettling Gender Reveal: The hostess at the restaurant turns out to be a transgender person.