'Hall Pass': Less Teaching, More Laughs
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Remember when a new Farrelly brothers picture was considered something like a bona fide cultural event, rather than just one more in a string of seemingly endless "outrageous" Hollywood comedies? Yeah, me, too. What happened? My own theory is that when writer-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly stopped using actress Lin Shaye -- so memorable as the horny landlady in "Kingpin" and overtanned neighbor to Cameron Diaz's title character in "There's Something About Mary" -- as their default female grotesque, they stopped "mattering." I'm sure other amateur students of comedy have competing theories, some of them involving Judd Apatow. In any event, for this reviewer, their latest picture, "Hall Pass," is such a tiring and dispiriting enterprise in and of itself that using it as a potential springboard to contemplate why the Farrellys no longer "matter" ... well, it just seems not to matter.
What "Hall Pass" does imbue this reviewer with is a new appreciation, and yearning for, the sort of comedy that "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David was and is such an avid pioneer of: "no learning." "Hall Pass," written by Peter Jones and Kevin Barnett with help from the Farrellys and based on a story by Jones, is structured so that just about every scene contains some form of learning, with the learning punctuated by, say, a joke involving explosive diarrhea made more disgustingly splattery by dint of having been partially blocked by a thong.
The movie tells the story of two near-middle-aged married buddies played by Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis (who come off pretty much exactly as one would expect them to), both of whom seem to be having a hard time letting go of their horndog adolescent longings. When mishaps involving baby monitors and security cameras reveal to their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, ditto with respect to coming off) the extent of their male dissatisfactions, the wives, who aren't exactly entirely fulfilled themselves, issue their hubbies the titular hall pass: a "week off" from marriage, during which they are permitted to stray as they will.
For Wilson's Rick, that means a perhaps not-as-quixotic-as-it-seems pursuit of a seemingly free-and-easy Aussie hottie (Nicky Whelan) who works at the local coffee shop. For Sudeikis' Fred, the more overt dawg of this horndog duo, it kind of means chasing anything that moves. Each successive scene manages to both pander to and undercut the lively fantasies of its male characters, and in the meantime, the vacationing wives find their own fidelity tested without even trying -- one of those "what incredible irony!" touches that the youngest of the child actors in the film could likely have seen coming from another state -- of the union, I mean, not "rather than childhood."
And indeed, older, more seasoned filmgoers will also note that the things "learned" in scene after scene were taught rather better in earlier, funnier and less-rote films, films such as Blake Edwards' "10" and Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing." Certain situational ethicists and marriage specialists might even question the value of what is being learned, and/or ostensibly taught to the viewer. But almost all but the easiest lays, humor-wise, will likely feel that the learning-to-laughs ratio here is, despite some of the quite genuinely disgusting and "envelope-pushing" gags involved (or maybe because of them), too slanted in learning's favor, as it were.
Then there's the whole sexist giving-with-one-hand-and-taking-away-with-the-other ethos, exemplified, in a sense, by the utter predictability of which member of the principal female cast is the one finally obliged to appear topless, but this will trouble only the particularly politically sensitive, whom I don't think really constitute the target demo for this type of picture. (It's -- non-spoiler alert! -- the Aussie hottie. Of course.)
There's also the weird matter of the, yes, pot brownie joke. Seriously: Of three crummy outrageous romantic comedy/bromances produced by Warner Brothers or a subsidiary thereof that I've seen in the past six months or so -- "Life as We Know It," "Due Date" and this thing -- all of them have included a pot brownie or pot jokes. Is there some executive overseeing the film branch of the Time Warner empire who's got a real thing for pot jokes, someone who thinks they're absolutely hilarious and that every ostensibly "edgy" comedy needs at least one? Because a) they're not (the jokes) and b) they don't (need them. The comedies.). Just wanted to clear that up, in case I'm actually on to something.
One more interesting note is that the movie is at its funniest when it stops trying to be all invertedly fuzzily humanist, and lets fly with the resentment, as with some running gags involving a bearded wool-capped faux hipster (Derek Waters) who stirs things up with Rick and Fred. This suggests that the Farrellys might be better off forgetting the teachable moments and just letting loose with the hatred for these damn kids and anyone else who so clearly pisses them off. Might be a step back for humanity, but a step forward for comedy.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.