Roaming holiday: In ‘Hall Pass,’ Farrellys give two married guys the chance to cheat without retribution
Bobby and Peter Farrelly have brought water to the arid desert currently calling itself American film comedy. It’s a drink spiked with enough crudeness to cause a nasty bout of dysentery. But things are currently in such perilous shape that excremental splatter qualifies as a major sign of life — both for American comedy and the Farrellys, whose previous movie, a cynical remake of “The Heartbreak Kid,’’ suggested they were all but dead.
“Hall Pass’’ is the brothers’ 10th movie, and their most gangbusters since “Me, Myself & Irene,’’ which turns 11 this year. The new film’s hook makes a gimmicky first impression. The wives of two suburban salesmen give their men a week to cheat. This sounds like something ripped from The New York Times Sunday Styles section and processed into the sort of movie that brought us, say, “I Love You, Man,’’ in which two straight strangers fall platonically in love.
If the Farrellys are chasing social fads, their movie serves as hilarious forensic evidence of the precipitous downside of some would-be trends. And by “forensic,’’ I mean they’ve gotten the “Law & Order’’ “chung chung’’ in on the nonsense. The sound effect marks the seven tragic days and nights during which Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) pursue seduction.
Rick had been happy unconsciously ogling other women. Fred has learned to love masturbating in his minivan. It’s their wives, Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate), who need a change. They take the advice of a friend and successful shrink (Joy Behar), who says letting her husband pursue other women for a spell only strengthened her marriage. The joke in “Hall Pass’’ is that very married men might be too socially out of shape for extramarital sex, especially when permitted to have it. Single people also know that when you go looking for sex, it rarely happens. That might be why Maggie and Grace fare better vacationing in Wellfleet. (The movie was shot in Georgia, but it’s completely apparent only when the Atlanta-area treasure the Stella Bass Band shows up for comic wallpaper in a club scene.)
Rick and Fred suffer from early onset middle-age. They’re about 40, and don’t appear to see anything wrong with looking for women at a Providence Applebee’s. Their first free night is spent with three married buddies — Stephen Merchant, Larry Joe Campbell, and J.B. Smoove — who watch Rick and Fred live their dream while stuck, proverbially, in class. Night one ends with the five of them sluggishly looking at rib bones and bottles of red wine they’ve drunk. Their lips are burgundy.
“Hall Pass’’ is unlike “The Hangover,’’ a similar if far nastier and less competently made comedy that buried its best, raunchiest material in a montage coda. That movie was devoid of any real life. “Hall Pass’’ bursts with it. Details like those burgundy lips are what I love about the Farrellys, who wrote the film with Kevin Barnett and Pete Jones. When they’re at their best, they’ve located tremendous comedy in throwaway bits whose sharpness has a paper-cut sting. The scenes proceed in a breakneck manner in which a sequence is assembled so that each cut is funnier than what preceded it. That sort of escalation is used twice here. On “Day 3,’’ Fred, who’s easily the crasser and more desperate of the two, gets drunk at a bar and vulgarly berates a table full of uninterested but not unamused women. He’s punched out.
Chung chung! “Day 4.’’ The camera then hovers over Rick and Fred splayed on two hotel beds, with Fred hooked up to a breathing contraption whose awful elaborateness Grace so undersells in an earlier description that it’s exponentially funnier when we actually see it.
It’s a relief to have the Farrellys working so close to the height of their powers when too many comedies are operating at rock bottom. They’ve honed the skills of gross sincerity and sincere grossness. But the most surprising strain — in “There’s Something About Mary,’’ “Fever Pitch,’’ and even “Shallow Hal’’ — is how they’re also about what women want, and what they’ll tolerate in a man.
Indeed, for the havoc wreaked by pot brownies, hot tubs, exploding flatulence, and stunt penises (OK, two), “Hall Pass’’ also remains a reassuringly human movie in which even Sudeikis, a “Saturday Night Live’’ regular, manages to play his first complete movie character: a horndog who adores his wife. Fred and Rick discover that a loving heart doesn’t cure a wandering eye. It just puts a patch over it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.