Hall Pass (United States, 2011)February 24, 2011
In 1998, Bobby and Peter Farrelly pushed the raunchy comedy envelope with their breakout hit, There's Something about Mary. Since then, two things have changed: the Farrelly Brothers have become softer (Exhibit A: their PG-13 2005 romantic comedy, Fever Pitch) and the hard-R comedy genre has made There's Something about Mary look like a Disney movie. Hall Pass represents the Farrelly Brothers' stab at regaining the crown they lost more than a decade ago and, to do so, they have pulled few tricks from Judd Apatow's playbook. That means making sure there's an element of sweetness to be found underneath the fecal matter, bodily fluids, pot brownies, and naked dicks. Some of the material in Hall Pass is just plain gross, but some of it is damn funny. The shock value is much higher than in There's Something about Mary but, perhaps surprisingly, there's an element of relationship insight in the screenplay. No one is going to mistake Hall Pass for an existential, introspective French drama, but there's a little more to this movie about love, marriage, and monogamy than one might glean from the trailers.
Rick (Owen Wilson) and Maggie (Jenna Fischer) have been together for 20 years and have three young children. Fred (Jason Sudeikis) and Grace (Christina Applegate) have been together for nearly as long but are childless. Both marriages are in trouble, however, with the rot of routine having set in. Maggie fakes sleep to avoid having sex. Rick fantasizes about the 20-year old babysitter and ogles the sexy Aussie barista (Nicky Whelan) at the local coffee bar. When Maggie and Grace bemoan their situation to a psychologist friend, they receive some unusual advice: give the men "hall passes" - a week during which they can forget their marriage vows and do whatever they want. The inevitable disillusionment that will come from fortysomething suburbanites acting like frat boys will give them a new appreciation for what they have at home. So Maggie packs up the kids and she and Grace head for a cottage at the Cape while Rick and Fred learn that freedom can lead to desperation (and that Appleby's isn't a great pick-up place).
Hall Pass isn't by any means flawless, but its ability to integrate extreme scatological humor with moments of genuine feeling is rare. Owen Wilson is solid as an average guy who fantasizes about what it might be like to be single then, when faced with an opportunity, recognizes how much he loves and misses his wife. For him, Hall Pass is a love story, and a sweet one at that. Jason Sudeikis tones down the over-the-top comedy we often see from SNL alumni plying their trade on the big screen. The Farrellys try to give him screen time to match Wilson's, but he ends up seeming like a sidekick. His character arc is less affecting, although he gets some of the biggest (and, in at least in one case, the most disgusting) laughs. Hall Pass missteps by providing occasional glimpses into what's happening with the wives. The movie needs either more of them for balance or none at all (at least when they're on vacation) - presenting their stories by halves leaves the viewer with a sense that something is missing.
Although not all of the humor is of the raunchy and/or gross-out variety (good use is made of the Law & Order tones), it's hard to see Hall Pass appealing to someone who doesn't appreciate this sort of comedy on some level. To be fair, the funniest material is often not the most extreme. As has become the norm in recent films, male nudity is used to comedic effect and, since Hall Pass aims to earn its R-rating, it's not just a moon shot or two. The female nudity, on the other hand (and there isn't much) can be seen as either titillating or rewarding patience, depending on your point-of-view.
The standout performance, to the extent that there can be said to be one in a production of this sort, belongs to Richard Jenkins, the character actor who got everyone's notice with The Visitor, a rare leading role on an eclectic resume. Here, he doesn't make his appearance until the film's final third but, when he arrives, he dominates every scene he's in. His portrayal provides him with an opportunity to show that he's as good with comedy as he is with drama.
Many extreme comedies focus so much on the outrageous antics of the characters that there's little left beyond the shock value. Hall Pass offers more and that's what sets it apart from disappointing material like Hot Tub Time Machine. When the film is over, the viewer will feel like he has been told a story rather than merely subjected to a string of rude, hit-or-miss jokes. Hall Pass likely won't be the sensation that There's Something about Mary was 13 years ago, or even that The Hangover was two years ago, but it's better than one expects from it, and that's as unique a quality as its other characteristic: a comedy that's sporadically funny.
Hall Pass (United States, 2011)
Cast: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate, Nicky Whelan, Richard Jenkins
Screenplay: Pete Jones & Peter Farrelly & Kevin Barnett & Bob Farrelly
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema