Rick and Fred (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) are two domesticated husbands whose long marriages (to Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, respectively) have achieved somnolent routine in suburban Providence, Rhode Island.
Yet the wives worry. Rick is a girl watcher; Fred masturbates in the privacy of their parked Honda Odyssey. (His predicament is, throughout, the less dignified.) Under the guidance of a friend — Joy Behar, of course — the wives decide that they shouldn't let their husbands stew on "the slow boat to resentment." The women retreat to Cape Cod with the kids and give the men a week off from marital fidelity (and assume that the doofuses are unable to cash in).
This is the "hall pass." You won't forget the title because it's repeated four-score times during the movie.
The husbands fantasize that they're missing out; the wives fantasize that they're content. Anyone acquainted with the history of popular American screen comedy from Billy Wilder to Old School can guess that Hall Pass is not going to make an outright endorsement of free love. The idea is to make the trip to inevitable conclusions funny (something like, "Monogamy is impossible, but anything else is worse"), and for a while Hall Pass does. Wilson's shy, amused line readings and Sudeikis' prodding eyebrows have a rapport. They're great fun while egging each other on, and they're boyishly wistful in introspective moments, confessing the married man's melancholy and anxiety about never again having sex that doesn't involve a "sense of duty."
As poker buddies, J.B. Smoove, Larry Joe Campbell and Stephen Merchant do fine supporting bull-session work. (Merchant has a closing-credits reappearance that's a short film in itself, seemingly an editing-room afterthought once the filmmakers realized that enough hadn't been done with the character.)
Still-timid Rick and Fred are advised early by their pals that it doesn't matter if they strike out — they should "at least take a few swings." A similar philosophy applies to the hack-away humor here. Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly make hay from out-of-touch foolishness and the oblivious insensitivity of the young and desirable as Rick and Fred — their midsections spilling over pleated khakis, giving off the aphrodisiac scent of mortgage payments — take their mission to get laid to Applebee's.
The Farrellys' endless fascination with novel varieties of human types makes for some lively sight gags: the angry boyfriend revealed to be a giant as he gets up from his bar stool; dick-joke cutaways between Long Dong Silver and "Irish inch" stereotypes. Massage-parlor humor, ugly sex-act slang and an ante-upping pair of bowel movements further fulfill the raunch quotient — which is exactly what this material feels like: fulfilled obligation. The Farrellys, sharing screenplay credit with Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett, are coming off the longest break of their career here (it's been fours years since The Heartbreak Kid, their last film), returning to a proven formula.
The movie's latter half travels among the wives' vacation flirts, Fred's fumbling and Rick's chatting up a gorgeous barista (Nicky Whelan), irking her Hobbit-like co-worker (Derek Waters) until behind-the-counter passive aggression explodes into psychosis. This occurs immediately after Rick and Fred have received word that a loved one may be dead or injured.
The Farrellys made their reputation by toggling smoothly between incongruous saccharine and lewd registers. The crazy-barista, melodrama-slapstick collision seems not like a nimble twist but tone-deaf blundering. What once came naturally now seems like trying too hard, as the Farrellys face their own midlife crisis.