There is a scene in Hall Pass about halfway through that sums up my problems with the movie. Owen Wilson’s character Rick – a happily married man with three kids – has been advised by his friend Fred (Jason Sudekis) that the local coffee shop has a hot barista (Nicky Whelan), and so he asks the male coffee guy Brent (Derek Waters) to let him be helped by the lady – suggesting he has a complicated order that turns out to be “Iced coffee with one Splenda.” Brent mocks Rick for doing so, and Rick then dresses him down. He says (and I’m summarizing) “You may mock me for being a middle age guy, but when your failed art projects don’t work out, you’re going to be coming to me for a job.” It’s an effective insult because of the shorthand, and likely most people’s first-hand experience with coffee shop employees, but it’s the most telling scene in the film.
In this moment, the film has sided with the affluent middle age man over the struggling coffee shop employee with dreams of success. It’s also defending a middle age guy’s desire to lecherously ogle a female. Without getting into the socio-economic realities of being attractive help, this shows you every problem inherent in both the material and the filmmakers. Bobby and Peter Farrelly have been rich and successful long enough to become smug and oblivious.
The premise of Hall Pass is too labored to be worth much. Rick is married to Maggie (Jenna Fischer, who should have insisted the film be reshot as she looks like she made the entire film while hungover) and Fred is married to Maggie (Christina Applegate). Rick is passive in his interest in other women – though it flares up – and in the first sequence of the movie Maggie feigns sleep instead of having sex. Fred and Maggie have no kids, and so their unhappiness with each other is kept under the surface when together, and discussed ad nauseum with friends. On some level – partly because they don’t have kids – it feels like this should be a slightly younger couple in terms of the dynamic. And when the boys’ behavior discussing their friend’s wives’ attractiveness is made public – in one of the dumbest gags in the film – their spouses come to take the advice of plot-point friend Dr. Lucy (Joy Behar), who suggests they give their husbands a “hall pass.”
Let me freeze the frame here for a second. Call time out. A hall pass? Has anyone in the history of marriage ever done this, and then if so did they ever call it that? What stupid bullshit is this?
Okay, so the girls go off to the country for a week. Let me stop again for a second. These guys are really well off if Rick can have three kids and his wife doesn’t seem to work, and Fred’s wife also is not working (what is she doing with her time). The film would have done itself some favors by making the characters incredibly wealthy because then one can view their behavior with a little distance – the problem is that they’re way too cushy to be an audience surrogate. Again, it feels like the filmmakers don’t understand that their characters are dicks, but especially in the current economic crises, these guys come across as even more schmucky if their biggest problem is wanting side trim.
The rest of the film is about the week where the boys have the chance to go hog wild. This starts well as they’re grouped with their poker buddies (including Stephen Merchant, the funniest player in the movie, and J B Smoove) and end up at a Appleby’s on the first night of the film’s hideous amount of product placement. They are completely incompetent to start, and I think the film would have been better had it picked a gear for these guys to be in, but I found the escalation works against the film – had they been coked out from day one, that’s way more fun to come to the realization that they love their wives, or had the whole thing been mostly botched opportunities I could see it being charming. The next night they try harder, and by the last night, both are put in a position to finally use their pass. But as the men have been questioning their commitment to both their wives and OPP, their wives have come to understand the hall pass works both ways.
Few cinematic conceits are so fraught with peril as comedies based around infidelity. It takes a nice balancing act to have both heart and raunch in films like this, and with There’s Something About Mary, the Farrelly’s balanced that appropriately (though that didn’t have to deal with cheating). Here – from the opening sequence – you get a labored set up that leads to a solution (the hall pass) that’s totally ridiculous. And though the sentiment of wanting to be wanted during a long term relationship is understandable, the way the filmmakers go about capturing it is not. And when the film moves into its final act, you feel conflicted about the characters and what they should do in ways that are antithetical to the narrative. I didn’t give a shit if taking advantage of the hall pass would change their marriages. Also, The Farrelly’s don’t seem to have the cojones to take this any place uncomfortable – I felt the only option for a conclusion was to affirm traditional values. And for comedy to work it has to have some edge.
Ultimately the roles should have been reversed: Owen Wilson used to be known as the Butterscotch Stallion, and it would have been funnier for him to be the supposed “nice guy” with P on the brain and a potty mouth. Instead he’s supposed to be the family guy, and he does it well, but he doesn’t bring any of his big guns to bear. Jason Sudekis has the comic ringer role as the more asshole of the two, and he has to deliver some slang that feels exceptionally forced… much like the character. Good comic tropes are developed when you have an honest to goodness asshole, and this feels way too halfway about it. It’s hard to say how Fischer’s performance is because cinematographer Mathew F. Leonetti and her make-up people did such a bad job in this movie that I just winced whenever she was on screen. Applegate has a slightly more fun role, but the writing for the female half of the narrative is limited, but that would suggest the male characters are more rounded. Having a raging hard-on would be a good character trait for these guys, but the film blanches from it in all the wrong ways.
There are a couple moments here and there, and the film isn’t a total wash. These are funny and talented people, and small roles from people like Richard Jenkins (albeit way too forced) don’t make this a complete waste of time, but by the time the film comes to the end, I would have preferred if the filmmakers had let us make up our minds if the characters cheated or not instead giving us extended monologues about why they love their partner. Comic talents usually have a sell-by date: their material becomes hackneyed, or they embrace their inner problems and demons – as Marc Maron’s podcast points out. Comfort appears to be the enemy of good comedy, and the Farrelly’s come off as altogether too comfortable to understand the dilemma of their narrative. Shouldn’t this have been the comeback from the terribleness of The Heartbreak Kid remake? Alas, no lessons were learned.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars