In Hall Pass, the new comedy from the writing-directing team of Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Rhode Island housewife Maggie (Jenna Fischer) is sick of catching her husband Rick (Owen Wilson) ogling other women. She suspects he pictures these women during sex with her. And after she accidentally eavesdrops on Rick's disturbingly creative discussion of the female anatomy with his best friend, Fred (Jason Sudeikis), she's so fed up, she gives him a hall pass that is, freedom to sleep with anyone he wants for one week. She'll be at the Cape with the kids.
Rick is astonished. Is his wife giving him a freebie? No strings attached? He can make friends with benefits? Yes, all of the above which happen to be the titles of a spate of new films that dangle the prospect of commitment-free sex. In January's No Strings Attached, Natalie Portman offers Ashton Kutcher her body, as long as he leaves her heart and mind alone. This July brings Friends with Benefits, in which Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake use each other for sex. And in the 2010 indie The Freebie, just out on DVD, a couple give each other one night off from their stale marriage.
While contemporary filmmakers might be fascinated by the commitment-free hookup, they don't seem to believe in it. What we have here is a spicier route to the commitment-affirmation message found in classics like Billy Wilder's 1955 The Seven Year Itch. Except while Tom Ewell's married man was petrified of being punished if he cheated with Marilyn Monroe, Rick has a get-out-of-jail-free card. No woman is off limits to him: not the stunning barista (Nicky Whelan) who serves up his uncool drink of choice, iced coffee with Splenda, nor his willing babysitter (Alexandra Daddario).
But not for a second do you believe Rick is going to act on it. His friend Fred might, because he's the second lead and therefore allowed to step off the moral brink. Maggie and Fred's wife Grace (the ever capable Christina Applegate) might dabble as well, if only to prove the point that their men are lucky to have them. But while the directors of Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary are willing to hit the wall with bathroom humor (literally, in one stomach-churning scene), give us full frontal nudity and introduce us to appalling new expressions ("fake chow"), they believe in family and the American way, and that includes an essentially conservative attitude toward sex. In Hall Pass the character who strays is punished both physically and emotionally. Portman's no-strings-attached policy doesn't last. And in The Freebie, the only one of these movies to be directed by a woman, the partner who actually utilizes the hall pass lies about it to save the other's ego. What to expect from Friends with Benefits? We can guess from the trailer, in which Timberlake insists to his buddy (Woody Harrelson), "It's just sex." "That never works," Harrelson responds. Not in the movies.