I apologize to my mother for the review I'm about to write, but the Farrelly brothers have driven me to it. Their latest movie, Hall Pass (New Line Cinema), traffics in a brand of misogyny so puzzling that it can only be analyzed by examining the film's raunchy jokes at close range. The Farrellys have always prided themselves on their frank approach to body humor, and sometimes (with Kingpin, There's Something About Mary, and Dumb and Dumber) they've deployed it to ickily funny effect. But Hall Pass marks a shift in tone for the brothers. (One that was perhaps already present in their last film, a notoriously unfunny remake of The Heartbreak Kid —as a fan of the 1972 original, I couldn't bring myself to see that one.) Their taboo-stomping energy has given way to flaccid anomie. Hall Pass is about two guys trying to recapture their youthful mojo, but it also appears to be made by men who fit that description.
Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are old college friends turned married working stiffs, a Realtor and an insurance salesman respectively, based in the Farrellys' native Rhode Island. (If the version of Providence they live in looks suspiciously sundrenched, it's because the film was actually shot in Atlanta.) They love their wives (and, in Rick's case, his three conveniently invisible children), but they're chafing at the bit of their routine suburban lives: too much responsibility and domesticity, not enough poker and sex. At a housewarming party for an awful, social-climbing neighbor, the buddies are captured on security-cam video making vulgar fun of the host and his wife.
Horrified at their husbands' knuckle-dragging humor and incessant ogling of babes, Rick's wife, Maggie (Jenna Fischer), and Fred's wife, Grace (Christina Applegate), consult with their pop-psychologist friend (The View's Joy Behar), who urges them to consider a "hall pass"—a week off from marriage, during which the guys will be free to do whatever they want with no questions asked. With surprising (and implausible) alacrity, the women agree and repair to Maggie's parents' Cape Cod beach house for a vacation with the kids. (As in most contemporary comedies, a high level of material comfort is something the characters in Hall Pass seem to take for granted.) For the next seven days—counted down with a Law & Order-style "cha-chung" sound effect—Rick and Fred do their best to recapture their horn-dog single-guy days while their wives pursue their own flirtations with members of a minor-league baseball team.
This movie's midsection is as soft as a suburban dad's. The multiple scenes in which the boys cavort with their poker buddies at various venues unlikely to contain willing young women (a golf course, an Applebee's) all make the same point: Though they talk big, Rick and Fred are in fact afraid to test their chick-picking-up skills and petrified to cheat on their wives. The idea of casting the easygoing Wilson as a dorky suburbanite had promise, but neither he nor Sudeikis (a Saturday Night Live regular with a limited range of expression) get a chance to do much except masturbate, girl-watch, and mope.
Both the best and worst jokes in this middle stretch come not from the leads but from their buddy posse: Stephen Merchant as an uptight British nerd, Larry Joe Campbell as the obligatory big, fat slob, JB Smoove as the even more obligatory one black friend. Eventually, the guys' eternally single ego ideal, Coakley (Farrelly fave Richard Jenkins, cast amusingly against type), arrives in town to tutor them in the art of singles-bar gamesmanship.
Rick's resolve is tested by a comely Australian barista (Nicky Whelan) and Fred's by a variety of potential conquests, including a girl at a bar with an unspecified abdominal ailment (one guess where that gag is going) and the 45-year-old aunt (ha ha! 45!) of Rick's babysitter. But whether through cowardice or incompetence, the boys can't seem to take their plans to the next level, while up at the Cape, their wives are struggling to fend off the minor-league-ball-playing hunks.
I think that's enough setup to get into the question that most interests me about this movie: How does it want us to feel about women? Unlike male-bonding comedies such as Pineapple Express or I Love You, Man, Hall Pass isn't really about the joys and exigencies of male friendship. Rick and Fred are longtime buddies whose connection remains basically static throughout the movie. Rather, this is a film singlemindedly obsessed with men's pursuit of women: not only their sexual favors but their gaze and approval and love. And yet the script—by the Farrellys with co-writers Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett—reflects a deep ambivalence about female people: Are they frightening? Boring? Sickening? Do they represent freedom or constraint, safety or danger? In the end—I don't think it's spoiling anything to say this—Hall Pass reaffirms the primacy of the male-female marriage bond. But, boy, is it an uneasy alliance.
A major ongoing gag in the movie—in fact, it provides the closing line—has to do with a sexual practice Fred calls "fake chow," in which (forgive me, Mom) a man pretends to go down on a woman while actually just using his fingers and making loud smacking sounds with his mouth. Practicability aside (would anyone not on roofies fall for this?) the fake-chow joke raises the genuinely confounding question: Why? If Fred and Rick's entire goal in life is the pursuit of pussy, why don't they enjoy it when they get it? If vaginas are that offputting, shouldn't the heroes experience their relatively sexless marriages as a relief? The possible roles a movie like Hall Pass offers to women are almost psychotically narrow and self-contradictory: Either we're dull domestic harridans or enticing yet fatally hideous Medusas. If the Farrellys want to make movies that explore the American man-boy's simultaneous love and fear of women—a theme that, if treated well, could be fascinating—I hope they'll eventually put their mouths where their money is.