When Bobby and Peter Farrelly first started releasing movies in the mid-’90s, it would have seemed silly to ponder what a mature Farrelly brothers film might look like. The team behind Dumb And Dumber didn’t seem to have maturity in them. And yet, in 2011, here’s the answer to the question nobody asked in the first place: Hall Pass is a Farrelly comedy filled with marital anxiety and explosive diarrhea. And though the film never balances the grown-up stuff with the gross-out gags, it suggests the Farrellys might be able to do mature after all.
Of course, they started that a while ago. The Farrellys’ best films—particularly There’s Something About Mary and the perennially underappreciated Kingpin—always seemed invested in steering their characters toward growth and happiness, and though Hall Pass doesn’t rank with their best, it shares that trait. A genuinely soulful performance from Owen Wilson helps. Here, he plays a dweeby suburban dad with a good heart but a wandering eye. Tired of, and turned off by, his behavior—particularly after overhearing a pair of gross conversations with pal Jason Sudeikis—Wilson’s wife (Jenna Fischer) gives him a no-questions-asked week off from marriage in the form of the eponymous “hall pass.” Equally fed up, Sudeikis’ wife (Christina Applegate) follows suit, leaving the men a week to return to single life, with a gaggle of married pals (led by Stephen Merchant) watching from the sidelines.
That’s a hacky premise, but the Farrellys give it a frequently funny and just as frequently heartfelt execution. The early scenes portray how boredom, frustration, and misunderstanding can creep into even the most stable marriage via the intimacy-killing grind of child-rearing routines. But cast adrift, Wilson and Sudeikis don’t know what to do with themselves, and the best gags involve the terror just beneath the surface of their new freedom. Hall Pass isn’t consistently funny: It takes a while to get going, and throws in a few more subplots than it really needs. But a few jokes hit hard, the rest prove mildly amusing, and the care taken with the characters goes a long way.
That care extends across the entire cast, too. Hall Pass lets its female characters voice their frustration as well. And while the men still get the lion’s share of the screen time, Hall Pass still looks like a Catherine Breillat film compared to the forced bimbo-ization performed on Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman in Just Go With It. Still, a postscript with Merchant that delivers big laughs after a stream of chuckles suggests the Farrellys have been reining it in a bit too much, and they’d be best served by not getting too mature. Maybe they’ll get the balance right next time.