Contemporary screen comedy has seen no sadder decline than that of Rhode Island’s own Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the two gentle-hearted, dirty-minded brothers who kicked in the doors of propriety and made scatology safe for the multiplexes back in the ’90s with their heroic blockbuster run of Dumb And Dumber, Kingpin and (especially) There’s Something About Mary.
Mainstream comedies have become so reflexively crass, it’s tough to recall what a shocker Mary was upon its release in the summer of 1998. Starring then-under-the-radar talents Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz (as well as washed-up Matt Dillon, who never did quite capitalize on the comeback) the picture slipped into theaters and took its time building ecstatic word of mouth, creeping up the box-office charts without earning blockbuster status until several weeks into its release. The “I-can’t-believe-they-just-showed-that” gross-outs were tempered by the film’s fundamental sweetness, making it the first and only movie with graphic come jokes that my mother wholeheartedly loved.
But the years have not been kind to the Farrelly brothers. Flicks like Me Myself And Irene and The Heartbreak Kid exhibit an ugly desperation beneath the gross-out humor, while the even less successful Stuck On You and Fever Pitch reveal that these siblings are at their most comfortable crafting jokeless comedies about perfectly nice people, boringly going about their daily business.
The Apatow Era left the Farrellys in the dust, but Hall Pass is their bid to reclaim the naughty comedy throne. As far as the work of aging, sadly irrelevant class clowns go, it feels a lot like Kevin Smith’s half-assed Clerks II.
Owen Wilson and SNL’s Jason Sudeikis star as Rick and Fred, a couple of henpecked suburban husbands living in Providence, R.I. At every opportunity, these men expound at great length about all the women they’d like to sleep with, yet right away something feels off. Wilson and Sudeikis speak of sex not in the jaundiced, experienced tone of middle-aged men who have been around the block, but instead in the abstractly boner-iffic, juvenile rants more appropriate for Superbad’s McLovin. These two are never not talking about “titties” or “large-mouthed vaginas,” yet never in a manner that would suggest that they’ve ever caught a glimpse of either one. Their stilted banter sounds more appropriate for a middle-school playground, with the film’s eyesore-bright over-lighting and primary color palate only adding to the artificial aura.
Which I guess might be the point, as after taking the advice of the unwelcome Joy Behar, Rick’s and Fred’s long suffering spouses (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) decide to give the boys a “hall pass.” In case you might miss it, the concept is tiresomely reiterated and over-explained in every scene. The wives take the kids to Cape Cod, giving their husbands “a week off from the responsibilities of marriage, no questions asked. Just get it out of your system.”
There’s a great idea lurking in here. In fact, Larry David mined an entire season of Curb Your Enthusiasm out of a similar deal with his onscreen wife Cheryl, and we delighted to the suddenly single would-be stud floundering in one ill-fated encounter after another, only to sheepishly return to the comforts of domesticity, with a formerly randy tail tucked between his legs.
Sadly, the Farrellys don’t seem to have much interest in their own premise. Instead, Hall Pass is awash in weirdly grafted-on pee-pee and doo-doo jokes, with the gross-outs feeling phoned in from another universe and often hurled at the screen having nothing to do with the picture’s rich central idea. Wilson faints in a gym’s jacuzzi, prompting a heroically endowed African-American man to rescue him from drowning. There’s a long, loving close-up of the gentleman’s oversized equipment, without any subsequent payoff. Likewise with the thong-clad co-ed who wet-farts diarrhea all over Sudeikis’ bathroom wall. Yes, we can see the penis and feces. Now where are the jokes?
And can we declare a moratorium on pot brownies ever being used as a comedic device ever again? By now they’re such a hackneyed trope, you might as well be complaining about why airlines give out such small bags of peanuts.
Wilson lazes his way through the film as if he’d rather be somewhere else, allowing Sudeikis room to improvise his way into the kind of mugging, needy performance that’s going to cut that big-screen career short very quickly. Borrowing entire scenes from Bachelor Party (another thing the film has in common with the anemic Clerks II) Hall Pass has so little faith in its own ideas, the movie resorts to police chases and a vengeful, gun-toting barista.
Indifferently photographed and slackly edited, Hall Pass rambles on and on, so undisciplined that by the end, even fleeting side characters are granted elaborate non-sequitor fantasy sequences to pad out the running time. Why bother spraying shit on a bathroom wall if you can’t come up with anything funny to say about it?
Directors: Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis and Christina Applegate
Running time: 105 minutes