- Josh Greenbaum
- Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Will Forte, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Josh Gad, Harvey Guillén, Rob Riggle, Brett Gelman, Jamie Demetriou, Sofía Vergara
- 93 min.
- Release Date
Universal Pictures should hand out complementary THC gummies or other edibles before every screening of Strays. The only way you might find this funny is under the influence. That seems to be the case in my screening, where the only people who laughed were those amid a distinct odor of cannabis; everyone else in the theater was nearly silent during what must be one of the most unfunny comedies in recent memory. Few of the jokes landed for me. I may have chuckled once or twice, but never did I laugh out loud or slap my knee in amusement. Instead, I realized at one point that my face had been locked in a scowl for much of the runtime. Then I gradually sank into my chair and groaned at the endless jokes about humping, pooping, and other dog-related goings-on. And I envied the few people who walked out after 45 minutes. But it’s for you, dear reader, that I remained in my seat and endured all 90 minutes of this dismal comedy.
An R-rated take on the recent string of dog movies—A Dog’s Purpose (2017), A Dog’s Journey (2019), The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), et al.—Strays follows a group of dogs who can talk with the aid of CGI mouth movements. But rather than the usual life-affirming story about the unconditional bond between a dog and its human counterpart, the movie finds the protagonist, a Border Terrier named Reggie, voiced by Will Ferrell, despised by his vile owner. Will Forte plays Doug, who never wanted Reggie and only kept the animal out of spite during a bad breakup. So Doug slings insults at the cute Reggie and plays a nasty game where he leaves the dog miles away, only to moan “fuck” when his unwanted but faithful pet returns home. The contrast between Reggie’s unwavering faith in Doug’s love and our clear understanding that Doug doesn’t want the dog is meant to be funny, I guess, but it’s just sad. Seeing Doug continue to treat his pet with verbal abuse didn’t make me laugh, and I worried about how shouting affected the dog performer, even though Strays doesn’t seem to place its animal cast in any real physical harm.
Through it all, Reggie remains blindly optimistic and rationalizes his owner’s tough love, while Ferrell’s voicework is in full Buddy the Elf mode. To be sure, Strays has a similar dynamic as Elf (2003)—in both, Ferrell sounds so innocent and enthusiastic, but he’s met with sarcasm and ridicule by his father. However, unlike Buddy, Reggie doesn’t win over the curmudgeon in his life. As the title suggests, Doug abandons his dog in the city, where Reggie finds a metaphorical home among other strays, each with a subplot: the loner Boston Terrier named Bug (Jamie Foxx) has a tragic backstory that makes him averse to ownership; a Great Dane named Hunter (Randall Park) must overcome wearing a recovery cone like a security blanket; and the prim and proper Australian Shepherd named Maggie (Isla Fisher) has a crush on Hunter. All of them eventually convince Reggie that Doug never loved him. Once he realizes this, Reggie and his new friends set out on a cross-country journey with the intention of biting Doug’s dick off.
Dan Perrault wrote the screenplay on spec, and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) developed the project at Universal. The script features references to the aforementioned crowd-pleasing dog movies, including a voice cameo by Josh Gad and an appearance by Dennis Quaid. Admittedly, I have not seen any of these recent heartstring-pullers out of a need to protect myself from ugly crying, while also sparing myself what looks like a cloyingly saccharine experience. But I suspect that one needn’t see those movies to get the jokes in Strays, since most of them involve dog penises, marking territory, and copious amounts of poop. At one point during the journey, the dogs find themselves caught in a pound. They resolve to launch an escape plan that entails the animal catcher (Brett Gelman) falling and slipping around in excrement while the dogs escape.
The jokes are of the most puerile, gross-out, and raunchy kind. But then, laughter is one of the most personal responses to a movie, so maybe you’ll find this funny. Strays contains a close-up of a dog’s anus, a Great Dane erection, and a three-way golden shower. Does that sound funny to you? I suppose these elements might be used in a comedy to riotous effect, but this one isn’t it. Though, I snickered a little during a scene when the dogs accidentally eat psychedelic mushrooms. They imagine themselves tearing up a bunch of stuffed animal rabbits, only to come out of their trip and realize with terror that they’ve murdered a nest of bunnies—a crime they cover up. But I may have been laughing at how much fun the dog actors seemed to be having, tearing stuffed animals to shreds.
The technology used to animate talking dogs hasn’t improved much since 2001’s Cats & Dogs. Here, the digital animation is stretched even further, rendering a hawk attack and a squirrel threesome with silly looking effects. However cheap the trick looks, director Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar) knows how to exploit the cuteness of his canine cast. The close-ups on Reggie’s face can’t help but make you smile, so even though Strays fails to generate much interest, the dogs are cute. Sure, there’s a valuable lesson here about leaving toxic relationships in the movie, but you have to sift through 90 minutes of toilet humor to find it. Still, in the end, when each dog inevitably finds happiness, I couldn’t help but be happy for them. But if all you’re after is feeling good about dogs, you could save yourself time and just watch some cute dog videos on YouTube instead.