Rick and Fred (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) are two domesticated husbands whose long marriages (to Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, ) have achieved somnolent routine in suburban Providence, Rhode Island.
Yet the wives worry. Rick is a girl watcher; Fred masturbates in the privacy of their parked Honda Odyssey (his predicament is, throughout, the less dignified). Under the guidance of a friend—Joy Behar, of course—the wives decide they shouldn’t let their husbands stew on “the slow boat to resentment.” The girls retreat to Cape Cod with the kids, gifting the guys with a week free from marital fidelity (and assuming the doofuses’ inability to cash in). This is the “hall pass.” You will not forget the title, as it is repeated four-score times during the movie.
The husbands fantasize that they’re missing out; the wives fantasize that they are themselves content; contrasted Venus and Mars assumptions are challenged when they part. Anyone acquainted with the history of popular American screen comedy from Billy Wilder to Old School can guess that Hall Pass is not going to make an outright endorsement of free love. The idea is to make the trip to inevitable conclusions—something like, “Monogamy is impossible, but anything else is worse”—funny, and, for a while, Hall Pass does. Wilson’s shy, amused line readings and Sudeikis’s prodding eyebrows have a rapport. They’re great fun while egging each other on and boyishly wistful in introspective moments, confessing married men’s melancholy anxiety of never again having sex that doesn’t involve a “sense of duty.” As poker buddies, the motley collection of J.B. Smoove, Larry Joe Campbell, and Stephen Merchant, as an ascot-wearing, brolly-toting, semi-swish Englishman parody, do fine supporting bull-session work. (Merchant has a closing-credits reappearance that’s a short film in itself, seemingly an editing-room afterthought once the filmmakers realized that enough hadn’t been done with the character.)
Still-timid Rick and Fred are advised early by their pals that it doesn’t matter if they strike out—they should “at least take a few swings.” A similar philosophy applies to the hack-away humor here, with the Farrellys putting up Adam Dunn–type stats: tons of whiffs but still more solidly hit laughs than in a dozen Couples Retreats. The Farrellys make hay from out-of-touch foolishness and the oblivious insensitivity of the young and desirable as Rick and Fred—their midsections spilling over pleated khakis, giving off the aphrodisiac scent of mortgage payments—take their mission to get laid to Applebee’s. The Farrellys’ endless fascination for novel varieties of human types makes for some lively sight gags: the angry boyfriend revealed to be a giant as he gets up from his barstool; dick-joke cutaways between Long Dong Silver and “Irish inch” stereotypes. Massage-parlor humor, ugly sex-act slang, and an ante-upping pair of bowel movements further fulfill the raunch quotient—which is exactly what this material feels like: fulfilled obligation. The Farrellys, sharing screenplay credit with Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett, are coming off the longest break of their career here (it’s been four years since The Heartbreak Kid, their last film), returning anxiously to proven formula. (Gonzo gross-out was struck from 2003’s Stuck on You and 2005’s Fever Pitch—cool, funny movies, if not glory-days hits.)
The movie’s latter half travels between the wives’ vacation flirts, Fred’s fumbling, and Rick’s chatting up a gorgeous barista (Nicky Whelan), irking her Hobbit-like co-worker (Derek Waters) until behind-the-counter passive aggression explodes into psychosis. This occurs immediately after Rick and Fred have received word that a loved one may be dead or injured. The Farrellys made their reputation by toggling smoothly between incongruous saccharine and lewd registers—a routine that has since become ubiquitous in the Vaughn, Stiller, and Sandler oeuvres. The crazy-barista melodrama-slapstick collision seems not like a nimble twist, but tone-deaf blundering—what once came naturally now seems like trying too hard, as the Farrellys face their own mid-life crisis.