Who was the first person to walk into a movie studio executive’s office and say “it’s like a movie for kids, but it has a hard-R rating,” and does that person now have more money than God? That gimmick hasn’t been the most popular in Hollywood history, but it has been weirdly resistant to the passage of time and the changing sensibilities of moviegoers. In 20 years, the idea of a movie about superheroes will have faded into legend, but someone will still be selling a pitch based on the idea of a seemingly kid-friendly thing saying bad words. The trailer will say something like “you’ve never seen shoes like this before!” and then a shoe will say “fuck you” and it’ll make $100 million at the box office.
The latest example of this trend is Strays, from director Josh Greenbaum, which is a talking-dog movie where the talking dogs say bad words. And if you’re not laughing already, the cast list should get you: Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, and Randall Park play the main group of dogs, with Will Forte playing the abusive owner of Will Ferrell’s dog. That’s the not-so-secret key to movies like this, since a movie about dogs saying “fuck” might not thrill you, but the idea of Jamie Foxx playing a dog that says “fuck” is apparently box office gold—at least in theory.
While Strays is the hot new thing, it certainly isn’t the first movie like this. Just a few years ago, there was the dire Happytime Murders, a hardboiled crime drama (satire) set in a world where humans and puppets coexist—but society is openly prejudiced against puppets. The film was directed by Brian Henson, who previously made the great Muppet Treasure Island and the immaculate Muppet Christmas Carol, but Happytime Murders was seemingly just operating under the assumption that puppets having sex and saying bad words was funny enough to carry a whole movie. It was not.
But you can’t really blame Henson for trying. Just a couple of years earlier, Sausage Party made $140 million, and it’s not like it sounds any better on paper than The Happytime Murders. This is a movie where the items in a grocery store come to life at night and have sex, but even the internal logic of that doesn’t make any sense. The main character is a hot dog played by Seth Rogen who has a girlfriend who is a bun, okay fine, but the villain is a douche played by Nick Kroll. Also Bill Hader played various bottles of alcohol, including one named Firewater and another named José Tequila. This movie made $140 million! They’re making a TV spin-off! We’re surprised that even being aware of Sausage Party isn’t getting people canceled.
These movies are all just trying to chase the high of Ted, though, which is still one of the highest-grossing R-rated comedies of all time (it made $500 million worldwide). Starring and directed by Seth MacFarlane, the movie was about a teddy bear who had magically come to life and grew up alongside his owner, played as an adult by Mark Wahlberg, to become a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, sex-crazed maniac (who just happens to be a teddy bear).
All of these movies are packed with famous people, though it’s worth noting that Happytime Murders has fewer famous people than average, with Ted going so far as to have a bunch of famous (and famous-ish) people playing themselves—which may be the real secret. Anyone can make a dog say “fuck,” but you could potentially just start printing money if you get a famous person to say “I’m such-and-such famous person, and that dog just said ‘fuck’.” That ostensibly fits the structure of a joke!
Good news for Strays, then, because the movie features Dennis Quaid playing himself, and he pops up in one of the trailers to make a comment about how he’s Dennis Quaid and how he’s seen some crazy shit in his life. Does that qualify as a joke? Does anything in one of these movies? Does anyone even care, if it stands to make a bunch of money simply by ticking off the boxes for what people apparently like to see in this kind of movie? It’s junk food, and junk food will always be popular—except for the brief window in 2018 when the world collectively rejected The Happytime Murders.