In 1996, Wes Anderson directed a small, little seen moved called Bottle Rocket that he co-wrote with his best friend Owen Wilson, who also starred in the film with his brother, Luke. Based on a short film of the same name that was a huge success at Sundance, the feature version of Bottle Rocket would tank commercially before being saved from obscurity by a legions of film critics and a small but clever audience that appreciated great storytelling and a unique voice, not to mention an MTV Movie Award to Anderson for Best New Filmmaker, maybe the last award the network has given a deserving filmmaker. Martin Scorsese even called Bottle Rocket one of the ten best films of the 90s. The success of Bottle Rocket had as much to do with Owen Wilson as it did Wes Anderson: In his character, Dignon, Wilson created this remarkable blend of deadpan and enthusiasm, a voice that felt new and vibrant and alive. When the movie finally found its audience, when Scorsese hailed it, when it later led to Rushmore, Owen Wilson must have felt elated. Like he and Anderson could someday stamp a permanent mark on Hollywood, that they would forge ahead with their unique vision, that they would infect the world with their quirky indie sensibility, and bring it to the masses.
Fifteen years and three Fockers movies, Marmaduke, Marley & Me, and an attempted suicide later, Owen Wilson is starring as a middle-aged Applebee’s schlub in Hall Pass, the latest in a series of misfires from The Farrelly Brothers, whose recent efforts include two of the worst films of the last decade, Heartbreak Kid and Fever Pitch.
If that’s not profoundly depressing, I don’t know what is. I wonder if Owen Wilson gave up on his dreams before or after You, Me & Dupree?
What’s more depressing is how painfully mediocre Hall Pass is. Before Judd Apatow and the bromance came along, the Farrelly Brothers once owned the comedy world, nailing the comedy hat trick with Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary (and to a lesser extent, Me, Myself, and Irene). But there has always been a sweetness underlying the Farrelly Brothers work — best evidenced in their script for Outside Providence — but it’s that sweetness that continues to undermine their efforts. They seem determined to mine the warmth and gentleness at the heart of their characters while maintaining the vulgar comedic sensibility that made them so popular. But the two don’t mix. They cancel each other out, and the result in Hall Pass is the same as it was in Stuck On You: A film that is neither funny enough to satisfy those looking for a good comedy, or sweet enough to satisfy a romantic-comedy demographic.
Hall Pass ends up being a muddled, schizophrenic mess, a few vintage Farrelly gags (and a couple that are even quite funny) diluted by the film’s predictable themes. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudekis star as Rick and Fred, respectively, a real estate agent and insurance salesman both so mired in loving, secure marriages that they are unable to appreciate because of their dicks. Their wives — Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate) — are also frustrated with both their gawking at other women and their delusions in thinking that, if they were only single, they’d be hitting this or that every night of the week.
After a couple of embarrassing incidents — a conversation about large-mouth vaginas that is being watched on closed circuit cameras by their wives (and an assortment of other people, including Alyssa Milano with fake breasts) and another, where Fred is caught by the police masturbating in his mini-van (two of the film’s biggest highlights) — the wives grant Fred and Rick a hall pass, a week off from marriage to do as they choose under the belief that it will only make them appreciate their marriages even more. Naïveté, of course, is the soul of the studio comedy.
The results are expected: In reality, middle-aged men are all talk and little action, and in a watered-down, studio-comedy kind of way, the Farrelly’s capture a few familiar truths, like 40-year-old men are far more likely to take advantage of a week off from marriage to nap than to bang the babysitter. But the Farrelly’s efforts to satirize suburban life are toothless, and the film eventually beats a predictable path down to Sappy Town, where Fischer and Applegate — filmed in such a way as to make them look a decade older — are waiting with open arms.
Hall Pass is not a complete waste, however. There are a few gags that take you by surprise, like a woman who sneezes with hilariously unexpected results. Early in the film, Sudeikis also hits a few high notes, riffing on the advantages of real breasts over fake ones, the joys of classic rock and masturbation, and the art of fake cunnilingus. But aside from a couple of Jackass moments, it all feels prefabricated, designed to hit that homogeneous sweet spot between both the lazy unthinking studio-tested male and female demographic.
It’ll probably do gangbusters on DVD. But I hope when Owen Wilson is sitting in between two sacks of money, re-watching Bottle Rocket over a couple of drinks, he finally remembers what brought him to the profession in the first place: A desire to make something both meaningful and entertaining, something with which he could be proud and not another tepid comedy about middle-aged malaise, forgotten somewhere between The Freebie and Old Dogs.