Review: HALL PASS - Solid Farrelly Gross-out Fare

rating: 3

Though it would be unfair to say that the Farrelly Brothers have been producing duds as of late, it has been close to a decade since they made their last work of genuine, uproarious hilarity, in the goofy conjoined twin Matt Damon-starrer Stuck On You. Their latest, Hall Pass, is certainly not a return to the demented brilliance of their best work, chiefly Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary and Me, Myself and Irene, but it manages to succeed on the strength of some potent observational humour and the Farrellys' signature oddball style, as well as game performances from a strong comic cast. Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are two best friends who live easy if apparently unfulfilled lives as married men with children. When their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) cotton onto the fact that Rick and Fred can't help but check out other women to allay their middle-aged ennui, they grant their hubbies a week-long hall pass in which they can do whatever they want free of consequence, with the hope that they can get it out of their system. At first it sounds like the blessing of a lifetime, but as the guys prepare to bring their A-game, they realise that the comfort of marriage has caused them to inflate their own expectations of just how appealing they are to women, and getting laid won't be as easy as they think. While clearly pointed as a men-are-from-mars, girls-are-from-venus foray, Hall Pass has, when all manner of spraying bodily fluids are expended, some surprisingly conservative things to say about the sanctity of marriage - this is not some crassly irresponsible film in which infidelity is pawned off with a sly hand. Further still, while the Farrellys bring little new to the table in speaking about relationships, their film is at least an unexpectedly even-handed account of the flawed nature of both genders. It operates with a metronomic predictability, but the trip is punctuated with enough big laughs and a solid streak of wily charm to make it one worth taking nonetheless. The set-up takes an inordinately long time, and indeed, much of the promise of a boys-on-tour fest of insanity on the scale of Superbad or The Hangover seems to evaporate once Rick and Fred's group of slobbish buddies - including Stephen Merchant of The Office fame (in his first major international role), and Curb Your Enthusiasm's J.B. Smoove - decide to leave the lads to it, but Hall Pass succeeds largely on the basis of its truthfulness, slyly cosetted into a more outrageous gross-out schematic. Ignoring the innate absurdity of the central concept, the actual gags not pertaining to fecal matter are generally well-observed, and as a result, bitingly funny. The desperate manner with which Rick and Fred try to keep their teenage inner-libido alive, while allowing the memory of their younger days to run wild, is exaggerated enough to be funny but not so much that it is unrelatable. I'm sure many people on both sides of the fence will relate to these characters, though they probably won't tell their partners. Owen Wilson is as well-cast as ever here, taking on a more morally dubious role than is typical of his comedy outings, yet the real attraction is the major push given to co-lead Sudeikis, graduating from bit-parts in mediocre comedies to a turn that at its best will be star-making, and at its worst still a major shift in profile for the talented comic. The real intelligence of their dual-act, and the inherent challenge they face, is being able to dial back the affable personas they have forged through their careers - particularly Wilson - enough that their complicity in the premise is believable, while not making them too lascivious or eager to take part in it. For the female contingent meanwhile, Fischer and Applegate get the short shrift comedically, and admittedly the dramtics they have to work with are utterly pedestrian, but they make the best of it even if they will probably leave you wondering how two men could bore of beautiful women such as themselves. Leads aside, the Farrellys have always had a knack for selecting a quality band of supporting characters, and while Merchant is absolutely the best of the bunch as the creepy, horny Brit (who gets one of the film's best gags in the closing credits sequence), there are a few sneaky cameos from several Farrelly alumni, and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it turn from Alyssa Milano as a large-breasted woman who, as is part of the gag, is only as important as her endowment. The icing on the cake is the superb Richard Jenkins as Coakley, a notorious sex fiend, who aids Rick and Fred in their quest. Playing massively against type, Jenkins is clearly letting loose, and after countless downcast roles (in everything from TV show Six Feet Under to Dear John), probably finds himself having fun for the first time on-screen in an age. You'll find few surprises going from A-to-B, and regrettably even the projectile poo becomes predictable after a while. However, the staples of just about any Farrelly Brothers film are here - the doofy double-act, the convoluted quest for a beautiful woman, and the gross gags - and while it certainly doesn't feel as genuine as their better films, it nobly side-steps a few easy dramatic ways out. As an undemanding comedy with some feral charm and a top-notch cast, it will certainly more than do. Hall Pass is released in the U.K. on Friday.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.