Those 1990s gross-out kings, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, are finally growing up, even if that maturation is visible only in highly relative terms. The siblings’ newest battle-of-the-sexes comedy, “Hall Pass,” contains just two instances of onscreen scatology (only one of which is explosive) and just three instances of frontal nudity (two of them male), but despite these good-faith efforts, their attempts to embrace a marginally more adult approach never really come off. Still, while the stabs at grown-up insight miss their targets, pic still packs more pure comedic punch than the Farrellys’ last few offerings, and should do healthy business.
Three years after fellow ’90s scatalogical auteur Kevin Smith tried to mine the gentler Apatovian landscape of bro-medy with “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” the brothers do likewise here, losing most of their trademark grotesqueries and casting Owen Wilson in the lead as Rick, a badly dressed, rather relatable father of three. Rick is a decent enough guy — he even refuses to buy beer for his kids’ 20-year-old babysitter, an act of civic decency that would have been unthinkable in “Kingpin” — though he does a poor job of keeping his girl-watching hidden from wife Maggie (Jenna Fischer). Much worse in that regard is his best friend Fred (Jason Sudeikis), whose wife, Grace (Christina Applegate), is at her wits’ end with her spouse’s wandering eye, even before he’s arrested for masturbating in his car.
The girls propose a rather extreme solution to the problem, giving their husbands a “hall pass,” or a week off from marriage in which to sow their wild oats, while they abscond for a vacation. Fred is overjoyed by this turn of events, Rick reluctant, though they band together to make the most of it. The film is funniest in the early part of this adventure, as these long-domesticated guys cruise for chicks in Applebee’s and face continual reminders of how long ago they were put out to pasture. (The truly awful pick-up lines they recite from Internet printouts are priceless.) Meanwhile, their wives immediately stumble upon a vacationing college baseball team, which provides for far better prospects.
Wilson is always an affable presence, and his scenes here are the best of the lot — even when he locates an impossibly hot, receptive fantasy girl (Aussie import Nicky Whelan), he maintains a self-effacing charm that keeps things just this side of believable. Sudeikis, however, veers more toward the “Bachelor Party” mold of wildly wayward husbands, and his rapacious horndoggery eventually turns exhausting.
Toward the end, the film introduces a pair of vintage Farrelly types — Richard Jenkins as a leather-clad lothario and Derek Waters as a psychotic coffee-shop waiter — and loses all its earlier restraint, sending its characters through crazed shootouts and chase scenes. It’s a bit of a cop-out on the filmmakers’ part, but it does pump some zany energy into what had become a precarious balancing act between the sleazy and the sincere.
On a technical level, “Hall Pass” looks pretty shoddy by studio standards, though clean camerawork was obviously a secondary concern on set, and it doesn’t distract too terribly from the business at hand.