It was a little more than 12 years ago that the Farrelly brothers redrew the boundaries of the movie comedy with There’s Something About Mary. With a single, deeply disturbing yet hilarious close-up of a pair of prosthetic testicles caught in a zipper, the directors obliterated previous notions of good taste and opened the way for the flood of hard PG-13 and soft R movies that clog movie screens today.
If Mary had just been a raunchy movie, it wouldn’t have had such an impact. It certainly was not the first to mine sex and scatology for humor. After all, Porky’s was raunchy, and Animal House (or most any other film involving Harold Ramis) was raunchy and funny, but these functioned as extended sketch comedies. There’s Something About Mary, however, raised its crudeness to a cringe-worthy level while maintaining an undeniable sweetness, as well as elements of conventional romantic comedy. In so doing, it established a formula that’s been considered the Holy Grail at the box office for more than a decade.
The Farrelly brothers lost the patent on their invention as soon as they created it. They followed up There’s Something About Mary with a string of movies that forwent the sweetness in favor of mean-spirited high concepts, such as multiple personality disorder (Me, Myself & Irene), conjoined twins (Stuck on You), and misogynistic delusion (Shallow Hal). They hit rock bottom with their truly ugly remake of The Heartbreak Kid, while other filmmakers took up Mary‘s formula, spawning hits such as American Pie, The Wedding Crashers, and The Hangover. Judd Apatow owes his entire career to the Farrellys.
With Hall Pass, the Farrelly brothers have returned their own prototype. Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are both long-married men who love their wives. But they’re also the same ex-obsessed man-children who dominate the post-Farrelly movie world. Horndog husbands with hearts of gold, if you will.
After a particularly embarrassing and very funny raging id discussion between Fred and Rick gets captured on a security camera live in front of their wives and friends, each is given a “hall pass.” Their wives—Grace (Christina Applegate) and Maggie (Jenna Fischer)—grant them one week off from marriage, so they can “be single” and feel free to do whatever they want. In other words, they set off in search of women to sleep with them, without any threat of consequences.
The fed-up wives head off to the beach with Maggie and Rick’s three kids in tow, allowing the men all the room they need to try and be boys again. Usually, this would be the last we would see of the wives until the end of the movie when they are needed to express moral outrage and/or tacit approval of their men’s shenanigans. To Hall Pass’s credit, the women are not abandoned: it turns out that they needed a hall pass of their own, and while they don’t get equal screen time, they are afforded the opportunity to work out their own issues in more than a cursory way.
That said, the men’s hapless adventures form the movie’s focus. Like Apatow, the Farrellys have hit middle age and their movie poses the age-old question, “How do you act like a responsible adult when you still feel like a horny teenager?” The answer is, as always, awkwardly.
The week for Fred and Rick moves swiftly from one fruitless attempt to pick up chicks at Applebee’s to a wealth of more interesting opportunities to get into trouble, including several moments that rival Cameron Diaz using Ben Stiller’s ejaculate as hair gel in There’s Something About Mary—as the movie itself seems intent on recapturing a previous, youthful success, however fleeting. Hall Pass features masturbation (again), full frontal male nudity, pot brownies, and one particularly nauseating take on explosive diarrhea.
None of these instances have the shock value of Mary, since they’ve become as expected in comedies of this sort as a twist ending is in an M. Night Shmayalan flick. Ultimately, while the gags are quite funny throughout, what makes Hall Pass worthwhile is its return to that undercurrent of sweetness the Farrellys first tapped in 1998. Here it’s manifested in an honest exploration of two married couples navigating the complicated, mostly opposing forces of desire and loyalty. What the Farrellys have remembered, to the movie’s benefit, is that the key is to show even the most misbegotten idiot grappling with such recognizable dilemmas, and to give him the chance to make a right decision in the end.