Review by Ryan Wilson

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two decades since the Farrelley Brothers blundered their way from a notorious Seinfeld episode about virginity to the big screen fart-fest that was Dumb and Dumber. Even more inconceivable is how long Dumb and Dumber has remained active in our juvenile consciousness. As I speak, no doubt there’s a male between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five holed up in a dimly lighted room laughing out loud as Jim Carry and Jeff Daniels enact idiocy. The movie perseveres because it’s still genuinely funny (at times) and because the Farrelleys knew what Mel Brooks knew before them: that a good comedy needn’t ignore the lowest common denominator.

Brooks knew how to exploit bodily fluid gags, but in the 1990s the Farrelley Brothers turned those gags into a genre unto itself: the gross-out comedy. Surprisingly, they balanced their toilet humor with sensitive stories about nice guys trying to overcome their embarrassing natural tendencies in order to win the girl. This was probably best exemplified when Ben Stiller let Cameron Diaz borrow some of his homemade “styling gel” in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. In this single scene, the Farrelleys repulsed an entire nation, but in our revulsion we also recognized something true about the moment.

The fallout was both good and bad. A slew of inferior imitation comedies overwhelmed us on both the small and big screen, and our stomachs loosened along with our standards. But we also saw smart filmmakers like Judd Apatow exploit the genre to tell poignant stories about everyday guys overcoming their issues.

It’s interesting to view the Farrelley’s latest film Hall Pass within the genre that they spawned. The brothers seem to realize that they can’t keep telling the same single guy story now that so many have told it as well or better, so the next logical step is to transfer that humor to the middle-aged guys who have settled into marriage and family. After all, they seem to be saying, guys are still guys and will always be idiots with hang-ups no matter how old they get.

The problem with Hall Pass isn’t this logic. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing what the Farrelley Brothers could make of middle-aged suburban men who think they can still score with hot women. The Farrelleys have always been good at depicting delusional males, as we saw in Jack Black’s character in 2001’s Shallow Hal. The trouble with Hall Pass is that the brothers give us nothing new within its appealing premise. When their wives, played by Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, give them a week “off” of marriage because they can’t stop gawking at other women, our leads, played by Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikus, feel like it's going to be a madcap romp, as do we. But instead it’s a week of tired clichés.

I appreciate a good Applebees jokes as much as anyone, so when Wilson and Sudeikus mistakenly think that they’ll find girls there, it’s funny. They even walk into the restaurant in slow motion cool, à la  Reservoir Dogs. But when they get inside, the Farrelleys leave them hanging. Why not go full-blown satirical on the situation? Instead, the brothers play hands-off, almost as if it’s a plug for the chain rather than a comment on how lame it is.

Sadly, the week only gets worse to watch. On a golf-outing that has nothing to with their mission, the husbands eat pot brownies, which leads to a number of unfunny sight gags. The rest of the week is spent at bars and clubs rehashing pick-up lines that weren’t funny when we first heard them infinity ago.

Owen Wilson is especially wasted in the film because at his best he can be ironic, zany, and sweet, as in Wedding Crashers and You, Me and Dupree. But here he’s the sincere straight man. You keep waiting for him to cut loose, but it doesn’t happen. The script also reigns in Jason Sudeikus, also a funny actor, making him completely unlikable. Where Vince Vaughn can get away with being the jerk sidekick on screen, Sudeikus’ constant vulgarities just make him a letch.

Since I don’t laugh at the subtle character humor, I don’t laugh when it’s time for the gross stuff. That has to be earned. But even these moments lack originality, as it’s just an excuse to make bad penis and feces jokes. As is their fashion, the Farrelleys spiral events out of control just enough, so that they resolve in just the way you’d expect. But the trip feels tired and stale.

I certainly didn’t go into Hall Pass expecting a serious comment on monogamy or the male ego. In fact I expected the opposite, a movie that cuts loose so much that it circles back around to deconstruct those issues. It’s always disappointing when the once rebellious are too lazy to push the envelope anymore, or when the once subversive decline into the mainstream. But maybe that also comes with age; at some point you stop mocking Applebees, and you just start eating there.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011