Review: Owen Wilson shines in ‘Hall Pass’

It’s strange that the Farrelly Brothers have become known for and identified by the most outrageous moments in their comedies.

Sure, they love to push buttons, and in “Hall Pass,” their latest film, there are at least two scenes that are designed to provoke an involuntary response from the audience, big giant cold-bucket-of-water shocks that got huge responses when I saw the film.

But if you really want to try to sum up their work, you can’t just look at those moments and use them as the totality of what they do.  You have to look at the unconventional casting that they’ve always made part of their movies.  You have to look at the way they try to find the sweet center of even the most extreme characters in their films.  You have to look at the regional focus of their work, the way they’ve made their corner of Rhode Island into something as particular to them as certain haunted corners of Maine are to Stephen King.

It’s tough for comic filmmakers as they get older because comedy depends in no small part on surprise and the ability to catch an audience off-guard.  It’s the same problem that horror filmmakers face.  The more films you make, the more an audience gets a bead on you.  They start to predict your rhythms.  And the moment an audience gets ahead of you, the moment they know when you’ll zig and when you’ll zag, you find yourself in a tough spot.  The Farrelly Brothers felt like preposterous anarchists when we first saw “Dumb and Dumber” or “Kingpin,” and right around the time “There’s Something About Mary” came out, they became a name brand.  Audiences got a handle on what it was that the guys did as filmmakers, and almost immediately, it was like the air went out of things for them.

It’s also hard when you move from being filmmakers to being a cottage industry, and I think the studios wanted so much of them so fast that they got spread thin as producers.  What’s happened in the decade since they released the two films of theirs I consider their least effective (“Shallow Hal” and “Osmosis Jones”) has been a sort of wholesale reassessment of them by the public, and I find that just bringing them up causes a knee-jerk reaction.  The thing is, they’ve continued to do some good work in those years.  “Stuck On You” doesn’t completely work for me, but it’s got a real sweetness to it, and I like the chemistry between Matt Damon, Eva Mendes, and Greg Kinnear in the film.  And I think “Fever Pitch” works very well despite the fact that I don’t buy Jimmy Fallon as a lead.  I know that “The Heartbreak Kid” was a passion project for them, something they wanted to remake for many years, and it frustrated me that the passion I heard when they talked about it did not seem to be onscreen when I saw the film.  That film, which I think just lays there, inert, was four years ago, and I would imagine the failure of the film must have winded the guys to some degree.

“Hall Pass,” which they co-wrote with Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett, is interesting for the way it mixes the young-man brashness of their early work with an older-man’s perspective on family and marriage, and while the film is being sold on the idea of married men cutting loose in a one-week vacation from their marriages, it’s actually a fairly canny deflation of that fantasy.  Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis star as suburban guys who are married to Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, respectively, but who have settled into a complacency, eyes wandering to a degree that their wives can’t ignore.  They are given permission to have a consequence-free week to do whatever they need to do, and their wives take the kids and go out of town for the week.

The moments in the film that I like least are the ones where it feels like they are working overtime to make what other people think of as a “Farrelly Brothers movie,” while the things I like most about the movie are the moments that genuinely feel like they came from the Brothers.  The observational touches, the casting for the friends around Wilson and Sudeikis, the fact that the plot doesn’t hinge on the typical romantic comedy lies and shitty behavior.  The characters may get in their own way at times, but they’re all trying to do what they think is right.  When it becomes apparent that the women get the better end of the hall pass deal, it feels just about right to me.  I am sure that if my wife and I ever ended our relationship, she would land well, and I would spend the rest of my life in a committed relationship with BBQ and Blu-rays.  The film exaggerates, and it makes its points in comic set pieces, but the basic points it makes are genuine, and well-observed.

“Hall Pass” is a low-key pleasure.  I didn’t run out of the theater doing cartwheels, but it felt to me like a major step in the right direction for the Farrellys.  I think it’s just the right combination of cast and script and chemistry, and the result is the most successful thing they’ve been involved in, overall, since “Me, Myself & Irene.”  I think Sudeikis in particular deserves to get a bounce out of this movie and into more film work.  He takes a fairly unlikeable character as written and makes him seem human and defensible even in his worst moments.  Wilson seems to have moved from the “I’m the coolest guy in the room” character into something softer, and it suits him.  Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate both come across as very appealing and very down-to-earth, and I think Applegate in particular is one of those secret weapons that any filmmaker is lucky to have in their film.

If you’ve made your mind up already that you don’t like what the Farrellys do, then “Hall Pass” won’t change that.  It is absolutely their film, and their fingerprints are evident in everything from the casting of the guys around Wilson and Sudeikis to the late-movie appearance of Richard Jenkins, and when they cross the lines of good taste with total abandon, you will know exactly who directed the movie.  But if you have an affection for what they do, you’ll see plenty of it on display here, and in its best moments, “Hall Pass” serves as a reminder of why we liked them in the first place.

“Hall Pass” opens everywhere today.