Having scored R-rated hits with Kingpin and There's Something About Mary, the Farrelly brothers (Bobby and Peter) have struggled for the past decade -- since 2000's R-rated Me, Myself and Irene -- making PG-13 movies in pursuit of a younger audience (with the exception of the remake, "The Heartbreak Kid," which just wasn't funny).
But the bottom line is that the Farrellys just aren't that funny unless they're being really dirty.
I'm not about to debate the value of vulgar humor. Some consider it the lowest form of comedy; others consider it daring and envelope-stretching.
But I will say that I welcome the Farrellys back to the R-rated fold with Hall Pass, their funniest film in a decade. There are four or five huge laughs -- triggered by the movie's most outrageously transgressive moments -- that had me gasping for breath.
That said, I also have to note that, between those big laughs, Hall Pass is pretty slack. Still, big yuks are not to be undervalued; they almost make Hall Pass worth sitting through in order to mine those laughs from the dross of the rest of the story.
Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis play Rick and Fred (I Love Lucy reference noted), a pair of married guys in Providence, R.I., whose wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) are fed up with their juvenile obsession with sex - particularly their constantly ogling of and commenting on other women. So the wives take the advice of a best-selling pop-psychologist (Joy Behar) they're friends with and give their husbands a "hall pass": a week off from marriage, no questions asked, no strings attached.
(I'd never heard that particular phrase before. But then I'd also never heard the term "fake chow," one of the more hilariously lewd concepts in this film.)
The central idea of this movie is hardly a new one: Married guys who feel hemmed in by marriage discover that they are, in fact, in their comfort zone. But the Farrellys understand all too well how men's minds work, especially in the hyper-sexed 21st century, where TV, the Internet and the movies all promote a free-and-easy sexuality without consequences.
They also flip the script and have the wives, who abscond with the kids to Cape Cod during the weeklong break, discover that, in fact, they are still considered desirable by other men. Yet they too find themselves beset with unexpected guilt at the idea of cheating.
But, as noted, the writing between the shocker-humor moments is surprisingly bland. And it misses countless opportunities -- none more so than the ones involving Richard Jenkins as Rick and Fred's legendary buddy, Coakley. Coakley is talked about several times in the early going by Rick, Fred and their pals Gary (the invaluable Stephen Merchant) and Hog-Head (the under-utilized Larry Joe Campbell) -- but he doesn't show up until the last third of the film.
He looks funny -- tanned, leathery, draped in gold chains, with an unlikely rep as a first-class finagler and ladies' man. Yet he's barely given anything to do in his few scenes (though he is part of one of the film's better visual gags).
Maybe it's that the Farrellys have lost their edge; they've made an entire movie about how nice it is to be married. When they swing for the fences - with moments involving intense embarrassment and various bodily functions - they harvest guffaws.
But they don't do it often enough. They also misuse Owen Wilson, who is stuck playing a nice-guy dweeb who spends more of his time reacting (when Wilson is an actor who needs to be reacted to).
On the other hand, the Farrellys may be the ones who have finally discovered just how big a talent Jason Sudeikis has. He's incredibly versatile, able to be subtle or broad, a conniver or a doofus. He covers the whole range here in a role that could launch him as the next comic star to escape the Saturday Night Live orbit.
Is Hall Pass worth the time and money? Well, if you go in with low expectations, you can't help but be pleasantly surprised. As noted, the value of those huge laughs shouldn't be underestimated.
More:I Love Lucy There's Something About Mary Larry Joe Campbell Farrelly Brothers Christina Applegate
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