Hall Pass is actually pretty funny, for a movie that has to be described as a thematic failure dipped in a fast-drying shell of conceptual bullshit. Hall Pass has a great cast and a fair amount of genuine laughs, but the movie is (and will be) ultimately forgettable because its main premise is fumbled so badly.
Owen Wilson and SNL‘s Jason Sudeikis play Rick and Fred, two suburban husbands just beginning the long slouch into middle age. Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Christina Applegate play their wives, respectively, who get so fed up with their husbands’ constant ogling of every strange woman in a three-mile radius that they make the eyebrow-raising decision to give the guys one week off from marriage – the titular “hall pass” – to do whatever and whomever they please.
In my opinion, you could hardly have a more likable cast. I’ve been a huge Owen Wilson fan as far back as Bottle Rocket, Cable Guy, and Anaconda, and Sudeikis is an affable enough presence on Saturday Night Live and everywhere else he goes. Jenna Fischer is the picture of sweetness on The Office and she does far more than can be expected with the roughest, most under-written role in Hall Pass. (More on that in a minute.) She also gets to dress up a little more colorfully. It’s nice.
And Christina Applegate holds a special place in my heart for contributing mightily to the raging bonfire that was my pubescent phase. She has always been a defter comedic actress than she ever got credit, and the only reason I can figure that she hasn’t had Jennifer Aniston’s career is that the image she emblazoned as of Married With Children’s Kelly Bundy was imprinted too strongly in America’s mind. (It sure was on mine, though I would like to see her in more Anchorman-type roles that play just as well to her strengths.) Applegate is funny and pretty and refreshingly mean in Hall Pass (everyone else is way too sweet for that premise), and it kinda kills me that she’s now being ushered into playing hot-mom roles, but this movie would have been far worse without her.
But have you seen any of the press interviews for this film? Everybody’s bending over backwards to make excuses for the premise. Paraphrasing loosely: “Crazy idea, right? Don’t worry, it’s okay though, the wives are okay with it, in fact it was their idea, the wives get a hall pass too, etc..” Great. Sounds like fun. Who’s this movie for, again? Because it’s not depraved enough for horny young single guys, and it’s not nearly as female-friendly as all this equivocating would have you believe.
Hall Pass backtracks at every conceivable juncture. The wives are the ones who get the original idea. (Which is presented to them by a one-scene character played by Joy Behar of The View, the most prominent femme-centric TV show that doesn’t have Oprah in it. This shit is not subtle.) In the toughest role in the film, Jenna Fischer just barely squeaks out the notion that her character becomes convinced that a hall pass is in any way a good idea. Owen’s character doesn’t even want to do it. She insists that he needs it, that they both need it. She doesn’t seem to believe that at all, and he seems reluctant to agree, but of course, if she doesn’t say it and he doesn’t agree, there’s no movie. So the plot wins out.
But here’s a question: If the main character (Owen) doesn’t want the hall pass adventure, why should an audience want to see it? If we feel guilty about it by proxy, our license to enjoy it has been revoked before we even get started. No, it doesn’t help that Sudeikis is enthusiastic about the hall pass by comparison, since as scripted and played, he seems ultimately harmless, like a fourteen-year-old hoping to get a peek at his older brother’s Playboys. (Again, Sudeikis is very winning, but not the Belushi-esque presence that would make this movie more dangerous.) And once the guys get the hall pass, their first act is to load up on food and miss valuable single-dude time. It’s a funny idea, but it’s also evading the main story. Same deal with an extended sequence where the guys drop hallucinogenics on a golf course: it’s funny (particularly whenever the great Stephen Merchant or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s JB Smoove get scenes to steal), but it has nothing to do with the damn hall pass! How can there be any suspense as to whether the guys are going to cheat or not, if the outcome is never in doubt?
This should be Comedy 101: Nearly every classic film comedy that has ever worked (Some Like It Hot, Young Frankenstein, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Raising Arizona, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Observe & Report, etc.) has had protagonists that tried to do something, once that something was defined and laid on the table. They can fail hilariously, or be thwarted, but if they avoid their comedic calling, the comedy begins to feel false.
With two days to spare, Owen’s character finally gets around to courting a beautiful young barista at his local coffee shop (played by Nicky Whelan), and that’s where the movie really started to bother me. The character is convincingly lovely, both on the page and on the screen. She looks terrific but there’s also a real sweetness there. Any straight male in the audience will probably be able to understand why Owen’s character is tempted. But in the end (mild spoiler) he ends up being pretty honest with her, and since she seems pretty smart this far, it’s something of a surprise when she takes off her top and offers him sex anyway. This is a storytelling problem for two reasons: A) Here is a picture of Nicky Whelan…
…It’s impossible for me personally as a moviegoer to believe that any guy who took a hall pass in the first place would pass that up when confronted by her immaculate nudity.
And B) It feels more than a little sleazy. Up until this moment, we’re led to see that this girl isn’t just a sex object, that she has a family and a background and hopes and dreams, and this is why Owen is tempted, because she has a great personality beyond her awesome looks. But the way it plays is, “Well, we kept promising sluttiness all movie, and it’s almost done now, so have Nicky’s agent persuade her to whip her tits out.” It plays like an awkward afterthought, sacrificing what character development Hall Pass has established so far in order to justify an unrated DVD. Somehow this movie achieved the unprecedented: It showed me a beautiful naked woman with a perfect body and made me feel bad about it.
So no, I would not hold this movie up as a genuine feminist document. Sorry.
How could Hall Pass have worked? Hard to say. The premise was a problem from the outset. It’s just too unbelievable, and this coming from a guy who cited movies about dancing Frankenstein monsters and giant marshmallow men as examples of effective scriptwriting. One thing that could have helped is if Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis were allowed to play much less likable throughout the film. The likability doesn’t need to be in the script: The casting covers that. If these guys were more dickish from the start, then their decisions would mean more. Turning down a naked Nicky Whelan would have real emotional weight. As it stands, that climactic moment feels rushed and sloppy. When a decent guy makes a moral decision, it’s not unexpected. But when a real asshole makes a moral decision, it’s kind of a big deal. You know where I learned that cinematic concept? Movies like Dumb & Dumber. Kingpin. There’s Something About Mary. Stuck On You. And who made those movies? Would you believe it was the same guys who made Hall Pass?
To be fair, this movie is hardly a waste of time. As long as one doesn’t delude himself with notions of gender equality here, one can appreciate the extended Alyssa Milano cameo (looking conspicuously ample and provoking the hetero-outburst that sets the plot in motion),
the way that a one-week vacation agrees with Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate (they go to Cape Cod and suddenly everyone’s mega-tan),
and of course, the unfairly-treated but phenomenally-apportioned Nicky Whelan.
There’s also a great surprise performance from a well-known character actor whose identity I won’t spoil, and a legitimately brilliant post-credits sequence with the underused Stephen Merchant.
I laughed plenty. I’m not taking that away. But there’s a difference between a one-and-doner, and a comedy that people want to revisit. I certainly won’t return to watch Hall Pass again, and besides Mr. Skin, I can’t think of anyone else who would want to either.
Just to underline the point, take a look at the difference between the American and European posters for Hall Pass to see what a more honest treatment of this premise could have looked like:
You’re bound for disappointment on either side of the pond.
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