Director Josh Greenbaum’s previous film, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, hit at a certain time during the pandemic, where people weren’t going to theaters, so studios were releasing films through streaming and having very successful engagement. Barb and Star was funny, quirky, and different, but I have the feeling that if things had been different, it would have been the kind of movie that would have disappeared in a week or so.
I enjoyed Bar and Star quite a bit, but it’s a slight entertainment that just happened to land during a time where we really needed that kind of silly escape. I’m not disparaging it when I say this; it’s just not a movie I felt the need to watch again.
Greenbaum’s latest, Strays, hopes to capture some of that audience, but Strays doesn’t have a tenth of the charm of Barb and Star. It plays like a movie thought up in a stoner’s house, watching Pixar movies and telling his buddies, “You know what would be funny? If the dog from Up said F*** a lot.”
In fact, the earnestness of the story and the crudity of the humor clash so prominently that the tone of the movie is all over the place. The humor never rises above the vulgarity; we don’t get any insightful jokes, and instead are inundated with cusswords, poo humor, and dog penis gags.
I’m no stranger to these kinds of movies – Step Brothers is one of my favorite comedies, and I laugh every time I see it. But there’s a clever subtext to that movie, and there’s absolutely no subtext to Strays. What you see is what you get.
I’m a fan of Will Ferrell but when he’s in earnest mode like he is here, he can be grating. We hear his voiceover, describing Reggie’s master (Will Forte) basically abusing him and sending him off to fetch and then abandoning him, only for Reggie to find his way back. Finally, his master drives Reggie over three hours away and leaves him in the big city to fend for himself.
Fortunately for Reggie, he meets some new friends – Maggie (Isla Fisher), whose owner is no longer interested in her as a pet, Hunter (Randall Park), a former police dog who now wears a cone and suffers from anxiety issues, and Bug (Jamie Foxx), a long-time stray who takes Reggie under his paw.
Once Reggie realizes that his owner truly abandoned him, he decides to return for revenge, bringing Bug, Maggie, and Hunter with him.
Strays is obviously spoofing those old Disney animal movies, and more modern family films, but it can’t find anything original or thoughtful to say about those movies. It spends most of its time giving us joke after joke of dog behavior, including crotch-licking, sexual positions, and a bit of mushroom stoner humor.
None of it was funny, although I admit that the audience I saw this with seemed to laugh quite a bit. I can’t tell if they were entertained by the animation that showed the dogs talking, but for me it wore thin after about five minutes.
And these dogs get a lot of dialogue. When the camera closes in on one of the dogs talking, there’s this weird uncanny valley effect that is very off-putting and would probably have been better had this been a completely animated movie. Instead, we get these dead-eyed animals that never once look like they’re actually in the scene.
This may be funny in a 30-second Super Bowl commercial, but try watching it for 90 minutes, and it becomes like nails on chalkboard. You can’t expect a dog to give a motivated performance, and it’s not enough just to make their mouths move.
Strays feels like a movie thrown out into the marketplace to die and plays to the lowest common denominator. In Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, in a future where everyone is a moron, the most popular film is Ass: The Movie, with sold out audiences and a ton of awards.
Strays isn’t quite Ass: The Movie, but it feels like it could be from the same production company. If you like jokes about dog poop and hearing the F-bomb dropped every 20 seconds, boy do I have a movie for you. Strays is a bad dog.
STRAYS REVIEW SCORE: 3 OUT OF 10
Strays is rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and drug use. The Universal Pictures release is now playing in theaters.