Men and women, as every chick flick and buddy-slob comedy will tell you, don't just come from different galaxies they're locked in a battle for supremacy. But Hall Pass, a light comedy of horny marital woe from directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly, makes a novel statement about the sex wars: It says that they're essentially over. And that the guys in case there was any lingering suspense about it have lost.
Rick (Owen Wilson), a real estate agent who dresses in amazingly dweebish plaid shirts, and Fred (Jason Sudeikis), a life-insurance salesman as genial and square as Howdy Doody, are suburban schlubs devoted to their wives and (in Rick's case) family. When Rick isn't taking out the trash or disciplining his children with textbook New Dad sensitivity, he, like Fred, has one topic on the brain: all the sexy, gorgeous women who, as faithful and loving husbands, they will never, ever get to sleep with.
All of which, I know, makes them sound like the most common and boorish of male movie characters. Except for one thing: These two, though they spend their hours fantasizing about straying, would never dream of actually doing it. They're like neutered dogs who carry their own leashes. When it comes to satisfying their libidos, they're whipped, defeated by the demands of family life (who has time for sex when you're trying to get the kids to bed?) or just by their loyalty. The raunchy chatter spills out of them, and some of it is funny, but mostly because it's so pathetically vicarious.
Hall Pass presents these men as a new archetype: the frustrated middle-aged husband as randy adolescent virgin. Wilson, geeked out in super-square hair, knows how to use his gentleness to turn himself into a figure of soft desperation. And Saturday Night Live's Sudeikis, in his first major movie role, has an agreeably dorky, bootlicking officiousness. (Fred thinks that he's scored a victory if he figures out how to look at a woman's behind without his wife seeing him.) They are so domesticated, the joke is they don't even know their pent-up sexual frustration is driving them nuts.
It takes their wives, Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate), to figure that out, and, under the influence of a pop psychologist (Joy Behar), to propose a solution: They will give their husbands a ''hall pass,” a week off from marriage during which the two will be allowed to sow their wild oats and, in theory, purge all those demons of roving-eyed desire. It's a kind of high-concept therapy for a high-concept comedy that views the hidden and buried lusts of married men in the age of Internet porn as a ticklishly normal state of affairs.
The Farrellys, working from a script they co-wrote with Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett, set all this up with an innocent dirty-minded aplomb. Still, if Rick and Fred's dilemma is the film's amusing appetizer, the main course ought to be what they actually do when they're let loose. And the punchline is: Out on their own, Rick and Fred are such hapless, inept womanizers that even when ''freed,” they're still trapped imprisoned in their overgrown-teenage heads. They treat Applebee's as a pickup joint and eat themselves into a food coma. They scarf pot brownies on a golf course, with even uglier results. And when they do try to hook up, they're so wild-and-crazy clueless about how seduction now works (''R-O-C-K in the USA!” says Rick, thinking that he's just said something cool, which makes you want to dive under your seat) that women look at them as if they were another species.
That, however, is a joke of diminishing returns. Hall Pass would like to be as dunked in reality as Judd Apatow's best comedies, but the movie is thin. The Farrellys can't quite nudge the characters from two dimensions to three. When Rick and Fred get lessons in humanity, the movie seems to be about two sketch-comedy characters learning they have souls. As one of the girls they keep approaching might say, Ewwww! It would have helped if the women on screen, from the wives to the ''perfect” Aussie coffee-bar babe (Nicky Whelan), were remotely interesting. But they're not. Which raises the question: How shrewdly can a comedy satirize the arrested male gaze when the movie itself is trapped in it? B–