Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis are pretty handsome for comedy actors, at least until Peter and Bobby Farrelly get ahold of them. As Rick (Wilson) and Fred (Sudeikis), two buddies from Providence, their hair is cut short and dorky, emphasizing their faces' rounded edges, and their shirts—Hawaiian, t-shirts, whatever—are unfailingly tucked in. In short, they've been transformed into Farrelly Brothers rube-heroes who have landed patient, attractive wives but can't stop staring at and fantasizing about other women—just about any women that cross their paths.
The wives, Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate), so desperate that they seek counsel from Joy Behar (not technically playing herself, but come on), decide to grant the boys a "hall pass," which is to say: one week off from marriage with no consequences. The central joke of Hall Pass is that Rick and Fred, in true Farrelly fashion, have no real aptitude for picking up women, which turns out to be trickier than their hazy memories of singlehood let on. Faced with the prospect of sexual freedom, they actually spend a lot of time chain-eating their feelings—Applebee's, Ben & Jerry's, McDonald's—as their jealous but skeptical buddies look on.
It's a funny idea, but the Farrellys show their hand early, betraying Rick and Fred's theoretical enthusiasm far too quickly. They even waste precious early minutes with Rick hemming and hawing over whether he even really wants a hall pass, presumably to establish that their heroes are dopes, but not cretins. The brothers, always happy to mix gross-out comedy with sweetness, are equally eager to chivalrously point out that Maggie and Grace are smarter, nicer, and more desirable than their wayward husbands.
The Farrellys are too chivalrous, in fact, to offer the women the indignity of big laughs; in a comedy of humiliation, maybe that's a nice gesture, but why hire Fischer and Applegate without tossing them more than a few cursory good lines? (Applegate played against a pack of man-children in Anchorman, too, but had room to bring her straight-woman frustration to life.) Wilson and Sudeikis, meanwhile, are allowed to loosen up the confines of their functional dialogue, rarely the brothers' strong suit, with established styles: Wilson's laid-back surfer version of Woody Allen and Sudeikis's jerkass enthusiasm. The supporting dudes, flitting in and out of the picture, aren't as well-served, although Stephen Merchant's sidebar sequence over the credits provides several of the movie's biggest laughs.
Hall Pass is consistently amusing, and it has some fun with the nightmarish desperation that takes hold as the week wears on, but the Farrellys aren't really fleet enough for outright farce (their movies are almost always ten minutes too long). They specialize in set pieces with comedy money shots; their best-loved movies, Dumb and Dumber and There's Something about Mary, simply manage to string more of those together, with better connective performances, than the weaker likes of Shallow Hal or The Heartbreak Kid.
The designated big moments in Hall Pass contain some of the corresponding big laughs, but sometimes they arrive feeling oddly rushed for such a lackadaisically paced movie; I'm not sure if the brothers' hunt for watercooler raunch is simply zealous or downright mercenary. A signature scene, like the one where Fred is caught masturbating in his car, will escalate with funny, silent reaction shots, until the movie smash-cuts to the final outcome abruptly. Sometimes the bluntness is funny; the movie makes great use of title cards counting down the hall-pass week, punctuated with chung-chungs on loan from Law & Order.
When they took a break from outrageousness with Stuck on You and Fever Pitch, the Farrelly brothers took surprisingly well to the rhythms of relationship comedies. In Hall Pass, they maintain that same humanity—Wilson gets a surprisingly touching monologue toward the end—but with their determined moral uprightness no longer a secret, it comes off a little more calculated than usual: a paean to marriage half out of love, half out of routine. As far as making dopey-guy conservativism palatable goes, though, the Farrellys still have Adam Sandler beat.
Opens February 25