Arrested development can be a great thing when used as a subject for a comedy. But when it afflicts filmmakers, it tends to lead down the road of diminishing returns. While watching Hall Pass, I found myself thinking back to Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s early films: the stupid, but funny Dumb and Dumber; the brilliant, but underrated Kingpin; and the overrated, but still very funny There’s Something About Mary. Sure they were mining the same over-the-top comedic vein repeatedly, but with the exception of Dumb and Dumber, they were also crafting “real” movies that weren’t just a series of gags strung loosely together. They took the time to give the audience characters worth caring about and stories that were entertaining. The comedy, while outlandish, was coming from the characters. With the comic abomination, Me, Myself & Irene, they took a steep downhill trend that was briefly broken up by the decent Fever Pitch before they showed signs of finally bottoming out with their dreadful remake of The Heartbreak Kid. Hall Pass marks a tentative step back in the right direction, but there is still too little of the sweetness and substance that they displayed in their early work.

Rick (Owen Wilson) and his best friend, Fred (Jason Sudeikis), are average suburban guys approaching forty. Rick is married to Maggie (Jenna Fischer). They have three kids that leave them too tired to make time for each other. Fred is married to Grace (Christina Applegate). While they don’t have kids, they have reached a level of marital malaise that finds them both unhappy with their lives. Sick of Rick and Fred constantly checking out other women, Maggie and Grace take the advice of a psychologist friend and give them a hall pass — one week off from marriage to do whatever they want. Maggie and Grace leave town for a week, leaving Rick and Fred to go as wild as they want, get it out of their system, and then hopefully return to a happier married life.

Of course, things do not go as planned. While they imagine themselves as studs capable of bedding any beautiful woman they see, the reality is much more harsh for Rick and Fred. Out of the dating pool for too long, they don’t know where to go to meet women or how to even approach them. Meanwhile, Maggie and Grace find themselves tempted by flirtations of their own, making them question their own motives for handing out the hall passes.

That setup supplies a wealth of opportunities for the film to explore any number of possibilities that could be both very funny and insightful. Are Rick and Fred so driven by their hormones that they would cheat on their wives, even if it’s not technically cheating? Are Maggie and Grace unhappier in their marriages than they realized? Do they want their husbands to have affairs so they would have an excuse to end their marriages? Could having this valve to blow off steam actually improve their marriages? These are all interesting questions, rife with potential for conflict. Unfortunately, the Farrelly’s blow their intriguing setup on an assorted bag of their greatest hits (not one, but two feces jokes, an embarrassing masturbation scene, multiple men obsessed with a beautiful blonde, and grown men acting like twelve-year-old morons).

It’s really too bad that the film falls back on such stale material because the scenes with at least one foot in reality are quite funny and touching. Wilson taps into the endearingly earnest persona that he used early in his career to give Rick a conflicted soul. On the one hand, he wants to go after the beautiful barista at his local coffee shop, on the other hand, he’s madly in love with his wife and doesn’t feel right cheating on her, even if she’s given him permission. He’s a likable and relatable protagonist who keeps the film from flying off the rails. A scene where he dresses down a snotty young guy for mocking him is both funny and smart — something the Farrelly’s have pulled off very well in the past, but here they immediately shy away from that bit of character building to go for a graphic gag about naked guys in a sauna.

To be fair, I did find much of the third act to be funny. Richard Jenkins has a nice extended cameo as Coakley, the wealthy playboy pal of Rick and Fred who teaches them how to pick up women. In one of the few nice surprises in the film, Coakley is never revealed to long for Rick’s family lifestyle. He’s perfectly happy being an unrepentant, middle-aged bachelor who parties with women half his age. It’s an effective bit of non-moralizing that helps to cut the excessive saccharine of the ending.

But even with the moments that Hall Pass gets right, it still gets too many wrong. It’s an attempt by the Farrelly’s to tell a slightly more adult story than they have in their last few films, but it’s not enough of an effort to grow past their inner middle schooler. When they can limit themselves to just one shit joke per movie, I’ll call that progress.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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