Written by Tom Augustine.
It’s depressing how much of a trip it was to see a film like Strays in the cinema with a packed audience. There was a time when a film this blessedly dumb would be a must for pleasantly sloshed Friday night crowds to come out for a decent, low-stakes laugh to kick off the weekend, but as the age of streaming fell upon us, such films no longer warranted leaving the house for, in spite of the fact that part of the value of the comedy film is in watching it with a big audience. There are signs that that tide is perhaps turning, that audiences may be willing to be lured back to the cinema for the right kind of comedy – as the modest successes of Ticket to Paradise, Cocaine Bear and most-especially No Hard Feelings can attest to. Strays is a somewhat different beast to those films, however, and surely a riskier proposition, lacking the natural star power of Paradise or Feelings or the easy meme-ability of Bear. There’s two decent stars headlining the film, in Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx, but neither have been theatrical-run stars for some time now. Indeed, the last time an out-and-out Ferrell comedy released in cinemas was the disastrous Holmes and Watson, while Foxx hasn’t meaningfully headlined a non-streaming film since Just Mercy, hardly a blockbuster.
The other potentially hard-sell: we don’t even see their faces. They provide the voices of dogs – as in real dogs with the mouths animated to appear as though they are talking, an old-fashioned technique in the days of CGI. Strays borrows its narrative liberally from Homeward Bound, telling the story of a naively optimistic little pooch named Reggie (Will Ferrell) who is abandoned by his dickhead owner (an impressively distasteful Will Forte). Alongside a group of supportive puppy pals, Reggie attempts to find his way back to him, first to try and prove his love, and later for revenge. The twist – these dogs swear, take drugs, have sex, make wry observations about human society, and all manner of other R-Rated escapades. It’s the kind of gleefully silly enterprise that asks you to check your brain at the door and wipe your memory of the details as soon as the credits roll. The fact that there’s little meat on the bones of Strays is part of the appeal.
The rare modern studio comedy to open in cinemas, Strays wrings a good amount of juice from a one-joke premise – (foul-mouthed) talking dogs – with paciness and a healthy serving of filthy humour. As far as modern R-Rated comedies go, it’s hardly Superbad, but it benefits from a cast of fine pedigree.
As directed by Josh Greenbaum, who brought us the wonderful Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the film is appealingly light on its feet, a tight ninety-minute injection of jokes of endearing stupidity (along with a fair amount of gross-out nastiness to boot). For a film like this, the only thing that ultimately matters is whether the laughs are coming thick and fast – and on this front, Strays largely succeeds. Much of this comes down to the efforts of the gifted voice cast – Ferrell is in his element as the frontman, while Jamie Foxx largely steals the show as Reggie’s jittery guide into the world of stray-dom, Bug. Elsewhere, Isla Fisher and Randall Park acquit themselves well as sidekicks along for the journey.
After getting used to the initial uncanniness of watching real animals speak with animated mouths, the film’s conceit is refreshingly low-fi, leaning into the goofiness of the premise, which extends outward to much of the film’s humour. That said, there are a number of sharp little gags throughout that keep Strays from being too-mild of an experience – a detour to a county fair that introduces us to a ‘narrator dog’ so intent on lending his perspective on his owner’s experiences to an invisible audience that he ignores all other animals is a highlight. The film for the most part finds ways to deliver refreshing new comedic angles on the usual things we find funny about dogs – that they hate mailmen, that they can never find a comfortable place to sleep, that they can’t resist digging holes, and so on. Few will emerge from Strays with their life changed, it’s true, but the affability of Strays is much the same as the affability of man’s best friend – just too damn likeable to be dismissed entirely.
Strays in cinemas now.
Movie title: Strays (Greenbaum, 2023)
Movie description: The rare modern studio comedy to open in cinemas, Strays wrings a good amount of juice from a one-joke premise - (foul-mouthed) talking dogs - with paciness and a healthy serving of filthy humour. As far as modern R-Rated comedies go, it’s hardly Superbad, but it benefits from a cast of fine pedigree.
Date published: August 17, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Dan Perrault
Director(s): Josh Greenbaum
Actor(s): Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher