Strays feels an awful lot like a movie written on a dare. Screenwriter Dan Perrault, of American Vandal acclaim, seems to be working with the kind of premise that could have been conceived in a late-night haze of juvenile giggling: what if those overly sentimental dog movies that teach profound lessons from a canine viewpoint were instead full of swearing and poop gags? But rather than unleashing jokes that practically write themselves, and despite a seasoned cast of comedy stalwarts, the punchlines here are kept on a short lead.
When Border Terrier Reggie (Will Ferrell) is left by his abusive owner Doug (Will Forte) in the big city after a game of fetch three hour’s drive from home, the little guy still has hope that he can bring his ball back and win Doug’s love. However, a street-smart Boston Terrier stray named Bug (Jamie Foxx) bursts that bubble, breaking the news that Doug has abandoned Reggie, then offers to teach him the ropes of living without human affection. Accompanied by a smart Australian Shepherd named Maggie (Isla Fisher) and a be-coned Great Dane named Hunter (Randall Park), Reggie and Bug party it up in the city until Reggie arrives at a plan for the ultimate revenge: biting off Doug’s beloved penis.
This sets off a road trip story with the usual beats reinterpreted through the lens of puppy hijinks. A visit to a carnival goes apocalyptic as fireworks start going off. A patch of mushrooms triggers a surreal set of hyperactive hallucinations. A trip to the pound culminates in a red-rocketing shit-slipping escape. It’s admittedly fun to see these stoner comedy pastiches translated through the naiveté and shamelessness of dogs, even if the dogs have a somewhat inconsistent understanding of human culture. (Cleaning up poop is a confusing concept, but they know who Hitler is?) And Reggie’s coming to terms with his abusive relationship with Doug is an effective emotional throughline that works independent of the comedy, giving the film more reason to exist than just to deliver puppy punch lines.
And yet those jokes are just fleas bouncing around on Strays’ solid backbone. The observational humor the dogs impart is, at its core, no less tired and treacly than the Homeward Bounds and A Dog’s Journeys that it seeks to lampoon, just with a lot more swearing and frankness about genitalia. There is one joke that hilariously mocks the convention of dogs narrating their owners’ life story, but the film never rises to that same level again, generally content to craft one-liners about how dogs sure do love to hump the strangest things, often calling back to previous gags with the subtlety of beating a dead cat. It’s like watching an episode of South Park where the sum total of the social commentary is that dogs love the taste of poop. Not the worst way to spend one’s time, but it’s hard not to want something a bit more insightful.
To the film’s credit, it’s directed and performed well. Director Josh Greenbaum follows up the transcendently hilarious Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar with the thankless task of wrangling dog actors with computer-generated mouth movements, but for what it’s worth the comic framing and timing are great, even when the actual material is not. Each of the main voice actors is typically typecast, with Ferrell playing predictably gullible, Foxx as brashly insecure, Fisher as the competent woman, and Park as the timidly polite lug. But they’re all great at playing those roles, so there isn’t much to complain about, with Park in particular standing out with some of the best vulgar material to work with.
Perhaps there was always a ceiling on how good Strays could be, with most of its promise baked into the novelty of its premise and not its potential to find new jokes to tell within that premise. For what it’s worth, Strays is nominally funny, but in a way that rarely provokes genuine laughs, just chuckles of appreciation. It’s a breezy, inconsequential film that will drip from the wrinkles of your brain like slobber from a chew toy, but as a late-summer distraction, maybe that’s enough. It’s just hard not to shake the feeling that there should have been a hilarious squeaker hidden amongst all the mildly amusing fluff.
Strays opens in theaters on August 18