Film Review: “Hall Pass”

by Jason LeRoy on February 25, 2011

Jenna Fischer, Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, and Christina Applegate in HALL PASS. Photo by Peter Iovino – © 2011 New Line Productions, Inc.

starring: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate, Nicky Whelan, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Merchant

directed by: Peter & Bobby Farrelly

MPAA: Rated R for crude and sexual humor throughout, language, some graphic nudity and drug use.

Hall Pass entices its target audience with a premise (and accompanying ad campaign) promising what is essentially a beer commercial come to life: two schlubby suburban guys are given “hall passes” by their wives to sleep with anyone they want for one week. And while that is an accurate description of what happens, make no mistake: Hall Pass is far from a raunchy sex-fest. This is a surprisingly tender, notably egalitarian romantic comedy that serves as yet another reassuring conservative parable (see also: No Strings Attached) that tempts with the promise of freewheeling sexytimes but ultimately just upholds the status quo.

Rick (Owen Wilson) is married to Maggie (Jenna Fischer); they have children. Fred (Jason Sudeikis) is married to Grace (Christina Applegate); they are childless. Rick and Maggie are the more level-headed couple; Fred and Grace are their more outlandish Fred-&-Ethel counterparts. As the film begins, Rick and Maggie have a small fight because he checks out another woman in front of her. When Maggie consults Grace, she sympathizes about Fred’s similar tendencies.

Then, commiserating further while on a jog with their colleague, Dr. Lucy (inexplicably played by Joy Behar), she suggests giving their husbands a one-week “hall pass.” She tried it with her husband, and their marriage improved significantly as a result. The underlying rationale is that all men have a fundamentally adolescent sex drive, and that no matter how happy a marriage is, they still have a mounting sense of sexual frustration over their desire to sleep with other people. So, argues Dr. Lucy (a doctor of what, I don’t know), it’s better to let the husbands get it out of their systems for a week than let it gradually erode the relationship over time.

And so Maggie and Grace go on vacation together, leaving Rick and Fred behind to fend for themselves for a week and be as nasty as they wanna be. Giddy with promise and possibility, the boys round up their crew of fellow suburban schlubs (including Larry Joe Campbell as the fat guy we know we’ll probably see naked, J.B. Smoove as the sassy black guy, and Ricky Gervais’ frequent collaborator Stephen Merchant as a sporadically effeminate Brit) and start trying to get it wet. Meanwhile, Maggie and Grace realize that a hall pass should really go both ways, so they decide to try getting it in while on vacation. But will anyone actually have the nerve to go through with it? And if they do, what will happen?

Saying this will immediately establish me as not the target audience for this film, but my biggest concern about Hall Pass was that the misogyny levels would be off the charts. And, toward the beginning, it seems like maybe such fears will be validated. The first time we see Fischer, she is looking crazy-eyed and haggard while clutching a hamper full of children’s clothes. In the very next scene, she berates her husband for looking at another woman. This is not a promising start, and we brace ourselves for a Todd Phillips nightmare world where wives are either silently beaming beauties or seething emasculating bitches inevitably played by Rachael Harris.

But this is not a Todd Phillips movie (thank Christ), and as the film progresses, we begin to realize that the Farrelly Brothers weren’t kidding when they told Movieline, “[Hall Pass] is a guy concept, but it’s a chick flick at heart.” Of course, they are greatly aided in this vision by the layered, funny, humane performances of Fischer and Applegate. These are actresses who deserve better than standard one-dimensional comedy-wife roles, and this film doesn’t let them down. Nor does it force them to be impossibly gorgeous and thin while married to dumpy schlub heroes Kevin James and Vince Vaughn, as Winona Ryder and Jennifer Connelly had to in The Dilemma. Fischer and Wilson make a cute and natural screen couple, while Applegate and Sudeikis are at least not as dramatically mismatched as she has been with many of her other onscreen paramours.

Seriously, what does this stunning woman have to do to get paired with her physical equal onscreen? She was with Jim Gaffigan in Going the Distance, for fuck’s sake! This woman was once married to Johnathon Schaech, one of the most gorgeous men to ever walk the earth! But since she’s a comedienne, she’s expected to happily play a chubby-chaser every time. Not to sound like Joan of Snark here, but the opposite of this scenario would never happen in an American comedy.

While the Farrelly Brothers name is still synonymous with such delightfully unhinged gross-out comedies as There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin, Hall Pass is closer to their more recent films, like Fever Pitch. Not that this film is without its envelope-pushing moments, such as not one but two onscreen defecations, and possibly the most graphic scene of male nudity in any R-rated movie ever. Ironically, their insistence on keeping a giant penis in their film clearly forced them to tone the rest of it down to secure an R; there’s not really any sex, and just a single pair of boobs.

I guess the Farrellys were willing to sacrifice the horn-dog content craved by their target demographic for the sake of celebrating the timeless humor of the naked male body. But Hall Pass makes up for the lack of onscreen hotness with a surplus of dirty talk (including repeated references to something called “fake chow” which was new to me), and perhaps most notably, officially canonizes the experience of being forced to attend gossipy stand-up comedy shows as the most demeaning thing a wife can ask of her husband. Sleeping with other people? No biggie. Kathy Griffin? Dealbreaker.

RIYL: the cast and the Farrelly Brothers

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