It's time we just come out and say it: whatever the Farrelly Brothers had, they've lost it. It's long gone. There is no denying their place in modern comic filmmaking; Kingpin is a deliriously gonzo, balls-to-the-wall masterpiece, and There's Something About Mary is, well, There's Something About Mary--a delightful mash-up of gross-out comedy and sunny romance that reconfigured the comedic cinema landscape. But since that critical and financial highpoint, each film has been successively worse than its predecessor: Me, Myself, & Irene, Osmosis Jones, Shallow Hal, Stuck on You, Fever Pitch, The Heartbreak Kid, and now, their first film in over three years, the misbegotten sex-in-marriage farce Hall Pass. They clearly did not spend the time off recharging their batteries. They're still trafficking in the same tired formulas and constructs; meanwhile, more gifted comic filmmakers (Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, Greg Mattola, and others) have evolved the Farrellys '90s form into something fresher, smarter, bolder, and funnier. Hall Pass is like a late-'60s Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis movie, stubbornly grinding out what used to work, current styles be damned.
The shame of the project is that the Farrellys have dragged down a cast of talented people: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Merchant, J.B. Smoove. These are gifted performers who have done memorable work before, and certainly will again, though none of them are terribly funny here. (Okay, Smoove and Merchant are.) The premise is simple but promising: Rick (Wilson) and Fred (Sudeikis) have been married for years to Maggie (Fischer) and Grace (Applegate), but their mates, fed up with their constant horniness and wandering eyes, take the advice of a wise friend (Joy Behar) and offer their men a "hall pass"--a week free of the burdens of marital monogamy. The theory, which the Behar character offers up from the moment she suggests the idea, is that they will quickly sober up to the realities of single life and realize what they've got. That is, come to find out, exactly what happens. Way to throw us the curveball there, Farrellys.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the Hall Pass screenplay (aside from how painfully unfunny it is) is how little is made of the central premise; it's frankly kind of surprising how few actual comic sequences are spun out of the guys trying to get laid. The Farrelly brothers and co-screenwriters Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett inexplicably think it's funnier (or easier) to have them eat too much or spend a day hung over or get high while they're playing golf; those scenes don't play as anything other than lazy writers killing pages and saving all the zaaaaaany hijinks for the end. The third act, by the way, includes an unexpected car accident, a shoot-out, and a police chase, prompting us to wonder if there was a clearance sale at the climax factory.
Meanwhile, two separate scenes within the first twenty minutes are predicated on embarrassing conversations overheard because of surveillance devices. A drunken Sudeikis hits on a girl, and when her boyfriend stands up, ho ho, he's gigantic. Richard Jenkins gets a one-joke character to play, and if that weren't bad enough, the one joke isn't even timed for a laugh. For that matter, the timing is off all the way through the movie; the dialogue is strained and the obligatory gross-out scenes don't unfold with any kind of comic rhythm or ingenuity. They just happen, and then they're (thankfully) over.
The two female leads come out looking best--surprising, since the dialogue they're given is so terrible (seldom have female conversations sounded more like they were written by four men). Ever-reliable Applegate is probably the best thing in the picture--her final scene with the baseball player is kind of priceless. Fischer is lovely and charming; it's a shame she doesn't get anything funny to do. But she does get what may be the film's best scene, throwaway though it may be: a vivid presentation of that terrible moment when a husband realizes, after hours of sexual run-up, that his exhausted wife has fallen asleep. They play that moment genuinely, and then it goes on one beat longer, into some really interesting territory. More moments like that would have certainly made for a more honest movie; it might not have generated a lot of laughs, but hey, neither did what they came up with.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.