thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Who’s Laughing? Race and Gender in Hall Pass

In race on June 27, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Promotions for the 2001 Farrelly brothers film Shallow Hal probably only appealed to like five people on the planet. I was one of those five people. Somehow I was like, “Offensive-seeming premise check, George Costanza with a tail check, boring Gwyneth Paltrow starring in a comedy check, I’m all in, ten tickets please.” Partly this had to do with my abiding love for Jack Black, which also led me to make one of the biggest film-going mistakes of my life: seeing Year One in theaters. (In my defense, I saw it at the discount theater. In my prosecution, I still put dollars into a person’s hand in order to see Year One, which is just an unfathomable decision any way you look at it. But Jack Black also gave me School of Rock, aka one of my top ten movies of all time. You win some, you lose some.) As it turned out, Shallow Hal was warm and silly and big-hearted, and possibly I still cry at the ending even after having seen the movie at least six times over. I’ve liked the Farrelly brothers ever since; generally, I think, they only make fun of people if they’re going to embrace them.

However, I question what the Farrelly brothers are up to in their most recent venture, Hall Pass. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis (who I cannot for the life of me tell apart from Ed Helms) star as two hot-to-trot husbands married to Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, respectively. Fischer and Applegate are lovely and funny as usual, and the film treats them with respect by acknowledging that they, too, experience both sexual desire and sexual frustration. Rather, it’s Hall Pass‘s representation of men that seems unfair to all the good husbands out there in the world. Here, Wilson and Sudeikis play crass oglers who are lackeys to their own worst instincts. Their ideas of female beauty are largely limited to thin, white women under 30, and they regularly deride the looks of women who don’t meet those standards. This is exactly the kind of thinking that Shallow Hal challenges, but Hall Pass plays the husbands’ derogatory view of women for laughs.

A related problem is the film’s treatment of race. Sudeikis’s character visits a Korean massage parlor in the hopes of a happy ending and greets a table of women who might or might not be Latina with “Hola,” striking a stereotypical Latin dance pose. Meanwhile, a scene in which Wilson’s character must be saved from a jacuzzi by two naked gym-goers relies on stereotypes of African-American masculinty in full-frontal compare-and-contrast shots. One could argue that the scenes with Sudeikis’s character, at least, are intended to satirize his character’s racial stereotyping rather than to suggest the stereotypes are themselves funny–the kind of technique The Office regularly employs with Michael Scott. However, Hall Pass doesn’t provide its characters of color with the opportunity to reveal the falsehood of those stereotypes, or even to respond to them in any way. They merely play bit, exoticized parts in the husbands’ sexual misadventures.

As a whole, Hall Pass feels far less eccentrically human than other Farrelly films; it’s as flat as Wilson’s pressed khakis. Where did their usual gross-yet-lovable heart go? Potentially, like the husbands, it fell asleep at a Chili’s. Here’s hoping it wakes up soon.

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