REVIEW: Crass, Crude Hall Pass Finds Redemption in Unlikely Source
The pleasantly crude Hall Pass reminds us of what's been missing from movies: Those squirm-inducing moments in comedy that produce enough discomfort that at points what we're watching is half a heartbeat away from a horror film.
And this return to form -- of sorts -- is a reminder of how ...um, deep the influence of the Farrelly brothers (who directed and co-wrote, with Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett) is. It's hard to conceive of even the British version of The Office -- this decade's high point of watch-through-your-fingers comedy -- without what the Farrellys' vulgar accomplishment in such films as There's Something About Mary. And while it veers into sentimentality, it does so from a speeding car; Pass finishes very quickly, not pausing to be self-consciously poignant. It does have a sloppiness that defeats the narrative momentum, so one-dimensional (which, for the Farrellys, is the discipline) that when it's done, you're ready for it to be over.
So it only makes sense that Owen Wilson, as the hapless Rick in the low-concept Pass, would be clad in a series of non-ironic pleated pants and Member's Only jacket ensembles that looks like they were chosen from the 40-Year-Old Virgin collection at Land's End. The Comedy of Emasculation that Judd Apatow and his disciples have made into a separate economy was invented by the Farrelly brothers, Kingpin being the strongest version of that.
Rick and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are a pair of husbands whose marriages are, at this point, held together by their urges to check out other women. Their wives, Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate), are as bored with their husbands' straying eyes as their husbands are with marriage. Rick and Fred are released back into the wild by their wives, Lucy and Ethel -- I mean, Maggie and Grace -- and given a week free of marriage responsibility. The men are allowed seven days to pursue the girls of their dreams. It's charming that Pass realizes how flimsy it is, conceptually; the women causing the domestic tedium are played by actresses who, when they were dewier, played the girls that caused men to drive into trees -- a throwaway joke itself. And the movie is self-aware enough to toy with the misogyny of its premise; Maggie and Grace suspect their men wouldn't know what to do with freedom. (And as shot by Matthew Leonetti, even the temptresses Rick and Fred want to chase look more like stale cupcakes than luscious frosting.)
It is fun to see a comedy in which every single joke hasn't been packed into the trailer. OK, many of the jokes are in the trailer, but Pass has a lot of dirt under its nails that can't be revealed to general audiences. It's an R-rated comedy that, in one scene, features an actor who could star in a porn version of Isaiah Mustafa's Old Spice commercials. Much of the humiliation that Rick and Fred experience takes place before they're given their hall pass. Despite the crassness of the raunch, there are some oddly deft touches: Rick shows why Maggie fell for him, and Wilson still has his slightly dazed timing, which makes him sound as if he's talking himself down from an Ecstasy trip.
But the magic touch that redefines Wilson in Pass is that his shaggy hair has been pushed back. His forehead gives everything away -- as if it's a screen where he's compulsively texting exactly what he's thinking and feeling. It's the real surprise in Pass; suddenly Wilson's transparent, so easy to read that you'd want to play poker for pink slips with him. He's gone from being boyish to childlike. Savvy filmmakers know how to exploit this quality; in Brick, Rian Johnson gave Joseph Gordon-Levitt the sheepdog coif that Wilson usually sports, which made Gordon-Levitt furtive, while in A Single Man, Tom Ford's slicking Colin Firth's hair back had the opposite effect -- Firth's forehead reveals nothing, a high-beamed implacability.
The Farrellys are equally shrewd at creating balance. Wilson and Sudeikis complement each other -- their goofiness isn't similar. (The filmmakers have brought a wide expanse of jerks to the movies; here Stephen Merchant, J.B. Smoove and Richard Jenkins -- with a spray-on tan that sucks light like a black sun -- are added to that gallery.) Sudeikis' Fred is supremely, annoyingly and uselessly confident -- like many of his Saturday Night Live characters. He bounces into a room and tells you exactly what he's thinking in a voice so strong and clear he seems incapable of ever whispering. When the film sprints to a close, it does so with a swift sequence with Merchant and his wife that reminds us there are other characters in Hall Pass whose stories might be just as interesting. Maybe it's because of the Farrellys' perverse generosity: even the secondary characters are as shallow as the leads.