Setup for one of the funnier--and more grotesque--jokes in the movie
The Farelly brothers' Hall Pass (2011) is crude, lewd, and not a little rude; also sentimental in the worse way, prodigiously misogynistic, hugely juvenile.
Okay, now that I've got that off my chest, let me tell you what I really think.
The Farelly brothers seem to be growing up, and I've mixed feelings about that--actually, I've always had mixed feelings about them. Dumb and Dumber (1994) had its moments (probably the best involving laxatives) and it's interesting to note that the ostensible comedian (Jim Carrey) was constantly upstaged by his non-comic friend (Jeff Daniels)--but this was mostly an exploratory romp, to see how audiences would respond to their brand of no-holes-barred humor (for the record the audiences loved it; the movie was a hit). Their true breakout comedy--where their voice and sensibility was finally recognized--was There's Something About Mary (1998), which again had its moments, but not the obvious ones (penis jammed in a zipper (fake-looking), sperm hair gel (worked, didn't it?)); far funnier were the horrifying lengths to which each man would go to get into Mary's pants. Men were the brothers' real target; men were the infantile monsters to be humiliated and tortured and all-around pummeled, to force open their eyes and see the real beauty about them (women, of course, among many others).
The Farelly brothers were always about childish men and their fantasies, almost always sexual; not so much The Male Gaze as The Male Erection, constantly swinging its destructive way across the room, constantly knocking over priceless porcelain. Can they shock? Once in a while a gag knocks the jadedness out of me, yes. Do I like what they're doing? I like what they're trying to do--bizarre gross-out comedy that tries to be deeply moral, in that the wrongdoers are indulged, shown the error of their ways, granted redemption. Doesn't always work out that way, and tonewise they could use a spoonful more (a bucket?) of vinegar to balance out the sticky sentiment, which can be overwhelming.
And that's good, that's only right: there should be room in the cinematic landscape for scatological humor. Remember that Swift wrote his share of poop jokes into Gulliver's Travels (can you imagine if the brothers had done that instead?).
Their masterpiece, I thought, was the little-seen, much underrated Kingpin (1996). Bill Murray, Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid in a movie sounds fun enough, but who would have ever thought that Vanessa Angel could not only do comedy, but play one of the most convincingly sketched female characters in the Farelly canon? Who knew that the brothers could tell a story straight (almost), with minimum gross-out (well, there's the amputation scene), with nuanced characterization and surprising elan? Who knew that they could sustain an angry, bitter tone for the length of a film, a tone more startling, more memorable, more genuinely disturbing than the grossest poop joke?
Hall Pass doesn't quite reach those heights. It's considered their most mature work yet (by critics that I assume haven't seen Kingpin), but as always has its moments. The premise does have promise: two men (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) have been granted by their exasperated wives (Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate) a hall pass--a week where the wives will go away, and the husbands can go play with other women.
The brothers as always milk the situation for laughs, but this time there's the subtext of middle age. These guys are past it, pathetic; Wilson in particular was probably cast for his reputation as a youthful romantic-lead goof of some years back. The picture depicts a Beer Run, a Spring Break, a Panty Raid, only by men who've presumably grown beyond these adolescent pursuits. In a sense it's a Judd Apatow comedy (he owed much to these brothers) with half the writing talent (not that I think much of Apatow's writing) and twice the comic teeth--the Farelly brothers aren't shy about putting their pair of fools through the wringer, squeezing every last drop of embarrassment from their now-wrinkled brows.
Problem is, with maturity comes responsibility--the latter half starts getting soggy. You usually don't mind in a Farelly comedy, sooner or later a joke comes along that blows all that stickiness away (and one literally does), but you start having expectations--a well-sustained dramatic arc; characters that develop; a comedy plot that doesn't follow the usual trajectory of revolting - realization - repentance - redemption. The wives have the thankless role of unfunny angels, the husbands start crying for their mommies--sorry--honeys; the picture reluctantly but inevitably falls into a rather schematic resolution (one consummates her affair (and is summarily punished); another gives "fake chow" (look it up); yet another...). You find yourself clinging desperately to the glow of goodwill you felt for these characters, back when they were funny, with no small help from the supporting cast (Richard Jenkins as the veteran experienced Coakley (who knew he could be this self-assuredly funny?); Nicky Whelan as a generously endowed--and surprisingly humane--barista).
Which shouldn't be entirely unexpected--solid construction isn't one of the brothers' prime virtues. But for confirming Wilson's worst phallic anxieties, and for stopping Sudeikis on his tracks with one of the most repulsive poop jokes I've seen this side of Tom Six, hey, I'll grant the movie the status of "watchable." Grant it a pass, in effect.
First published in Businessworld, 4.7.11