It’s probably not a good sign to walk out of a raunchy comedy like Strays and being more struck by the level of craft that went into making it than the resonance of any of the jokes. This potty mouthed, innuendo filled twist on the traditional tale of a dog’s journey through a troubled world looks impressive at every turn. The sheer patience required to work with real animals day in and day out is one thing, but to make it all into a visually stunning motion picture with accomplished special effects is a remarkable achievement. It’s just a pity that the jokes in Strays are so tiresome and unfunny, making all that effort scarcely worth the trouble.
Will Ferrell voices Reggie, a scrappy, optimistic, eager little scruffers with a dickhead owner, Doug (Will Forte), who only keeps the pooch around so his ex-girlfriend can’t have it. This guy hates the dog and does everything in his power to get rid of Reggie, but the little pup keeps coming back and begging to be loved. One day, Doug successfully loses Reggie in the big city. Scared and wanting to return to Doug, Reggie is taken under the paw of Bug (Jamie Foxx), a tough talking little guy who shows the sheltered pooch the joys of being a stray. Over time, Reggie realizes that Doug never loved him, and with the help of a couple of their friends – a meek, cone wearing therapy dog (Randall Park) and a gorgeous Australian Shepherd (Isla Fisher) who’s ignored by her influencer owner – they embark on a mission of revenge.
The jokes in Strays can be broken down into four categories:
- Dogs do weird and gross things.
- People do things dogs find weird and gross
- Dogs do human things, like swearing, humping, drinking, doing drugs, etc.
- Jokes about how dogs are used in other movies about dogs
And that’s about it to the story. Director Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) and writer Dan Perrault (American Vandal) just go from one predictable set piece to the next for ninety minutes. The jokes vary wildly in their success because they’re all so obvious and predictable. The gags in Strays have all been done in movies before, albeit without the added raunch factor. Punchlines can be called long before they arrive, and while the voice acting is great, there are some scenarios and one liners that can’t be elevated because of how tired they are.
Even moments where Strays is able to flip the script on such well worn material and get a few hearty laughs have a sameness about them that can’t be shaken. Also, given that the film is about a bunch of cute dogs, there are attempts at sincerity and heart that are just as predictable and pat. (Weirdly, the final act of the film becomes an almost poignant metaphor for toxic relationships that nearly lands, but stumbles because it relies on emotions that are largely forgotten about until the film needs to tackle them again.)
The result is a film that gets a handful of smiles and smirks, but few genuine laughs. But looking at Strays is a delight to behold. The dogs are great actors. The cinematography is on point. Even the effects used to make the dogs look like they’re speaking a human language is as good as these things tend to get. That deserves a considerable amount of praise. As for the rest of Strays, it is what it is.
Strays opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, August 18, 2023.
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