Hall Pass: New Farrellys Comedy

By Patrick Z. McGavin

It might be a matter of opinion and taste, but the Farrelly brothers are either a guilty pleasure or a sick joke.

Epic connoisseurs of the ribald and outré, Peter and Bobby Farrelly throw out all the stops with their new comedy of distress and faux pas embarrassment “Hall Pass,” about two wives who become so tired of their husbands’ mock philandering that they decide to see whether they have the ability and daring to actually step outside the normal bounds.

Like most of the brothers’ best work (“Kingpin,” “There’s Something About Marry”), “Hall Pass” has some explosively funny material and visually outrageous sight gags, one of which is no doubt going to be talked about in the same hushed manner as the notorious hair gel bit from “Mary.”

The good and bad intermingle constantly with the brothers. Down the stretch, the movie’s humor turns so nasty and repellant, especially the ruthlessly misogynist overtones, and the comedy mean-spirited and brutish, that it turns toward the plainly unpleasant and quite frankly unacceptable.

The original screenplay is attributed to filmmaker Pete Jones, whose own movies (“Stolen Summer”) show a far less hostile and abrasive comic register. The brothers also worked on the script and brought in another frequent collaborator, Kevin Barnett, to contribute to the volatile comic ideas.

The premise is not that far removed from last year’s low-budget independent movie by Katie Aselton, “The Freebie,” about a young couple that agrees to a one night of no consequence partner swapping to enliven their marriage. “Hall Pass” refers to an even more extended form of social and sexual leniency.

The story is set in Providence, Rhode Island (thought shot in Georgia). Rick (Owen Wilson) and his best friend Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are typical Farrelly brothers’ male protagonists: carefree, emotionally delayed hedonists who pretty much leer or swoon over every age-appropriate woman that crosses their path. “That’s just the way I’m wired,” Rick tells his wife, Maggie (Jenna Fischer).

Both men lead fairly bland, unprepossessing lives. Rick is a realtor and Fred sells insurance. (Like most television situational comedies, they also have knock out wives who are basically unavailable to most men, but that’s another story.) Both are also pent up and wistfully approaching their forties and afraid of what it all means. Rick and his wife have three young kids that monopolize their time and constantly intrude on any kind of romantic or sexual spontaneity. Fred and his wife, Grace (Christina Applegate) have no kids, but too often by his own count, he is left to his own devices for his sexual pleasure and relief.

The wives put up with the two men’s loutish behavior up to a point. When the two, in the movie’s funniest sequence, are inadvertently captured on surveillance footage mocking the haute privileged manner of a bourgeois twit and his wife, Maggie and Grace reach their boiling point. Spurred by the advice of an older female friend and psychologist (Joy Behar), Maggie relents and gives Fred the break from the marriage, a one-week and no recrimination pass to do anything he desires. After some initial hesitation on his wife’s part, Rick manages to wrangle the same terms.

With the wives and kids away at Rick’s in-laws, the men plot their strategy. The two are joined by the gaggle of poker playing buddies. It’s an interesting mélange of black and white English brother-in-laws (the very funny Stephan Merchant and J.B. Smoove) and the comic buffoon (Larry Joe Campbell). At the start Rick and Fred are a bit out of their league at easy sexual conquests, but they groove on the innate liberation they have been granted, leading to an exaggerated but funny part on a golf course where the humor and comic episodes are ramped up by the men ingesting large quantities of marijuana-laced baked goods.

Up until now, the brothers are able to tap into a free and anarchic spirit that carries the movie along. But when they are confronted with having to shape the material organically and create structure and discipline out of the comic premise, they are largely marooned. The early humor works because the sources, the haughty manners of the nouveau riche, plastic surgery obsessed trophy wives, offer a fat, easy and eager target.

After the promise of the set up, the movie turns more episodic and rote (in an interesting twist that’s unfortunately undeveloped, the wives are suddenly offered their own forms of temptation). Rather than locate the humor and tension in character and story, the Farrelly brothers take a more spastic approach, an exaggerated sketch format, where they simply throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks.

It leads to the most transgressive bit of the film where Rick, rather embarrassingly, finds himself needing assistance after he gets trapped inside a whirlpool at a local health club. Two men, one black and one white, both naked, come to his aid. The jarring visual gag plays on racial and sexual taboos predicated on white fear of the “black stud,” that is not just discomfiting but borderline racist.

Pretty much from that moment on, the humor turns more risible and offensive, especially with the introduction of Coakley (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy playboy whose gag about a young woman at a nightclub is another of the Brothers’ venomous stabs of sexual hierarchies and easy putdowns. That proves nothing compared to a woman Fred attempts to hook up with at the hotel that ends with her body eruption that is about as tasteless and nasty as one gets.

The entire last reel turns so frantic and incident-packed, with car chases and cops, it is as if the brothers have no confidence in their ability to tell a story and the plot leers from one implausible moment to the next. The reality is, the brothers walk the walk but never quite talk the talk. They are not nearly as subversive and daring as their reputation suggests. Their final portrait of marital bliss espouses rather conservative and traditional ideas coming off the more noxious and sinister suggestiveness of their remake of “The Heartbreak Kid.”

The Farrelly brothers are capable satirists and visual comedians. One just wishes they were more humane and fair in their sensibility and approach.