Strays (United States, 2023)August 17, 2023
Despite having a skinny running time of about 90 minutes, Strays may win the championship for most instances of profanity in a major motion picture. (I’m sure someone will run the statistics at some point.) It’s also a very funny movie. Profane, rude, and raunchy, to be sure, but a high percentage of the jokes “hit,” even though a few may be dangerously close to triggering a gag reflex. And it’s not just potty humor – although there’s plenty of that – but an amusingly offbeat “perspective” about how dogs might view peculiar human behavior. Strays stumbles a bit when it tries to do a little relationship-building among the dogs. (That kind of stuff in a comedy requires a more deft hand.) But it successfully touches on at least one serious subject (the ties that bind in abusive/toxic relationships) without bringing the entire story to a crashing halt.
When it comes to movies about talking animals, I’m not in the target audience. With only a few exceptions, I hate them. This one, however, is made for someone like me in mind. The dogs talk but pretty much everything they say is outrageous. If you’ve ever looked at an incessantly barking dog and wondered what it’s thinking, Strays postulates a few possibilities. The impact is a little like when Betty White dropped an f-bomb in Lake Placid.
The story is told from the perspective of a sweet, optimistic Border Terrier named Reggie (Will Ferrell), who consistently finds something positive in the abusive treatment visited upon him by his owner, Doug (Will Forte). Reggie’s favorite “game” results from Doug taking him on increasingly long rides, tossing a tennis ball as far as he can, then skedaddling before Reggie can get back in the truck bed. Tennis ball in mouth, Reggie happily retraces the vehicle’s root, amazing a frustrated and nonplussed Doug with his doggedness. Eventually, Doug literally goes too far (three hours) and Reggie finds himself stranded in a big city with no dog tags, no one to claim him, and only a vague series of landmarks to chart a path “home.” While in the big city, Reggie hooks up with three dogs who will form his posse: Bug (Jamie Foxx), a Boston Terrier; Maggie (Isla Fisher), an Australian Shepherd; and Hunter (Randall Park), a Great Dane. They join him on an odd, inauspicious road trip.
On a technical level, it’s fascinating to consider the skill with which the dogs are rendered. Things have come a long way since the days of Lassie. Although CGI is employed in some instances (especially matching mouth movements to words), much of the acting is done by trained dogs. The work is accomplished with sufficient skill that one never for a moment doubts the authenticity of what’s on screen. Credit director Josh Greenbaum, whose previous projects have primarily been TV shows and shorts, for getting this right. And the choice of voice actors – Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, and Randall Park – allows each of the pooches to develop a unique personality.
Strays falls into the category of films that are designed to shock. A glance at the premise – four mismatched dogs making their way home – would seem to be perfect for a family night at the movies. In this case, that might only work if the family in question is the Manson Family. The overall film is subversive as only something from the Phil Lord/Christopher Miller workshop (they share producer credits) could be but with a far rougher edge than any of their previous collaborations. The movie is short enough that the concept of a naïve dog misperceiving human behavior and motivations doesn’t feel overused. Provided the viewer is broad-minded enough not to be bothered by a nearly constant stream of profanity, Strays offers a kennel of off-color laughter.
Strays (United States, 2023)
Cast: Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Will Forte
Screenplay: Dan Perrault
Cinematography: Dara Taylor
Music: Tim Orr
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures