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Sins From a Marriage

MOVIE REVIEW
Hall Pass (2011)

HPD-04500c
Peter Iovino/Warner Bros. Pictures

In most respects, “Hall Pass” is a standard second-decade Farrelly brothers production. The fiery, scatological brilliance of the New England comedy icons’ earliest efforts — the beloved troika of “Dumb & Dumber,” “Kingpin” and “There’s Something About Mary” — has given way to works imbued with a mildly ribald spirit tempered by a strong dose of morality.

While the new Farrelly template surely reflects the married, middle-aged-family-men brothers’ general outlook, the movies it’s produced don’t have the same jaw-dropping, outrageous kick of those earlier efforts. Still, “Hall Pass” shows flashes of ’90s-Farrelly magic; and even at its most reductive, the picture can still fall back on one basic tenet: These guys know their way around a gag.

Owen Wilson and “Saturday Night Live’s” Jason Sudeikis play Rick and Fred, everyday upper-middle-class-family-men-homeowners, living comfortably in the very white, very bland Providence, R.I. Blessed with beautiful, supportive wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate), affluent homes and golf-club memberships, the tandem appears to be the WASP’s dream.

Yet, the men’s eyes wander incessantly, with nary a shapely rear or full bosom permitted to pass without inspection. Fed up with the visual philandering, the wives offer their men a “hall pass,” a concept introduced to them by their best friend Joy Behar (no, really). To wit: Rick and Fred will have the week off from marriage to bust out those rusty single-man womanizing skills, to see with finality just how much game they’ve really got.

Naturally, they haven’t got much; and the rest of the picture is largely a comedy of stark, gruesome errors as both men discover just how drastically the single world has passed them by. The story of men desperate for a midlife crisis but ill-equipped for one, the film offers a rebuke to the clichéd notion that within each milquetoast man lies a freak ready to let its flag fly.

The Farrellys bank on the pair’s cluelessness and are paid off by such misguided calls as the duo dropping by Applebee’s to find ladies and the fallout from Fred’s subtle suggestion of a “rub and tug” at the local massage parlor.

Although the brothers fail to resist some wheezy bits (pot brownies?), they find an engaging tone somewhere between gentle ribbing and utter cruelty for most of the high-concept sequences. Additionally, a much-built-up, little-advertised guest appearance (the respected actor is in the previews, but we won’t spoil the fun) pays off in conceit and execution, which is a rare feat.

The ensemble lets “Hall Pass” keep its balance, preventing the production from veering wildly toward obvious parody while partially suppressing the material’s malignant heart. Mr. Wilson shows that he can do the straight-man shtick without surrendering his amenable comic heart, while Mr. Sudeikis ably slips into the demented everyman persona that’s defined much of his “SNL” oeuvre. Wives Maggie and Grace are granted hall passes of their own, and that’s one significant problem. Mses. Fischer and Applegate cut such likable, composed, almost impossibly perfect figures that it’s hard to believe their characters could marry such schlubs.

The scales’ severe tilting in the wives’ favor is not all that costs “Hall Pass” some credibility. The movie never goes as far as it once might have gone under the Farrellys’ directorial hand. With the exception of one ill-timed explosion, the scatological humor and over-the-top visual broadsides are kept to a minimum. Additionally, there’s the queasy, vague sense of moralistic underpinnings, which is never a good sign for a comedy, particularly one centered on such a deliciously nasty conceit.

Instead of really diving into the premise and mining its blackest potential while preserving some of the heart, the Farrellys play things too safe. The utter futility and joylessness of the hall pass becomes the focus, and more than anything the picture makes you wish Rick and Maggie had never embarked on the venture. “Don't lust after what’s not yours,” the film says, and we’ve been told the same story innumerable times. Check out the Ten Commandments.

The world needs the Farrellys at their most gleefully subversive, not taking cautious steps in that direction before ending up at sweet and harmless. Of course, had the modus operandi just been all-darkness, all-the-time “Hall Pass” couldn’t have worked. At its core, this is a heartfelt comedy, grounded in real emotions, about men learning a lesson. Still, one can’t help but wonder what the “Dumb & Dumber” Farrellys might have made of it.

HALL PASS

Opens on Feb. 25 in the United States and on March 11 in Britain.

Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly; written by Pete Jones, Peter Farrelly, Kevin Barnett and Bobby Farrelly, based on a story by Mr. Jones; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Sam Seig; production design by Arlan Jay Vetter; costumes by Denise Wingate; produced by Bradley Thomas, Charles B. Wessler, Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Owen Wilson (Rick), Jason Sudeikis (Fred), Jenna Fischer (Maggie), Christina Applegate (Grace), Nicky Whelan (Leigh), Stephen Merchant (Gary), Larry Joe Campbell (Hog-Head), J B Smoove (Flats), Joy Behar (Dr. Lucy) and Richard Jenkins (Coakley).

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