We’ve come a long way since Mister Ed. The central gimmick of Josh Greenbaum’s Strays, an R-rated comedy about a foursome of misfit dogs traveling hundreds of miles to confront the human who callously abandoned one of them (think a way less kid-friendly version of the Homeward Bound films), is that when the animal characters speak, their mouths move with uncanny accuracy. By no means a new phenomenon — the first Babe pioneered these effects nearly 30 years ago — what is somewhat impressive here is just how much this technique is employed by Strays, where long stretches of the film amount to alternating two shots where a couple dogs spit out improvised-sounding dialogue with a similar rhythm as Jonah Hill and Michael Cera riffing about boners in Superbad. See, for instance, a scene wherein Bug, a Boston Terrier voiced by Jamie Foxx, silently mouths “fuck you” to a couple alley cats, with the subtitle helpfully provided by the film proving to be entirely unnecessary as we can make out every syllable rolling off the character’s little doggy lips. In particular, the “pffuuh” and “oooo” really do pop.
But back to the “fuck” of it all. Strays is a verbose 93-minute film where something like 70% of the dialogue is dedicated to discussions of shit, piss, dicks, and anuses. Whenever a scene begins to sputter — an alarmingly frequent occurrence — one of the adorable dogs will just start peppering the film with four-letter words so that we all remember that this isn’t actually a cute children’s movie. It’s a variation on the phenomenon, allegedly coined by film critic Mike D’Angelo, of the “Fallacy of the Profane Granny,” where the mere fact that cute animals curse up a storm is meant to be inherently funny, obscuring how absolutely dire the jokes themselves are. The extent of the film’s wit comes in observing how pitiful humans look while masturbating or highlighting a Great Dane having a large penis or that dogs like to hump things. And then there’s the shit, which proves the film’s absolute preoccupation with scatology. Which does make a certain amount of sense — to quote Jules Winnfield, dogs are “definitely dirty” — but after the second time a film has built a set piece around a detestable human character being covered in excrement, it feels fair to question whether the filmmakers really had their hearts in this one.
Amidst all the butt-sniffing and red lipstick sight gags, there is actually a plot of sorts. It centers around Reggie, a perpetually moist-eyed mutt (voiced by Will Ferrell) who’s dropped off in the big city by his neglectful jerk of an owner, Doug (Will Forte), in what’s his latest and most ambitious attempt to rid himself of his pet; we see in a flashback that Doug’s ex is the one who adopted Reggie as a puppy and Doug merely kept the dog out of spite during the breakup. Lost and afraid in the concrete jungle, Reggie crosses paths with Bug, a streetwise stray whose defiant proclamations about being happier without an owner all but telegraph a harrowing backstory. Bug tries to get Reggie to see the upside of living “off leash,” eating dropped food at happy hour and drinking leftover beer out of the trash, but Reggie yearns for his master. At first, Reggie simply wants a return to the abusive relationship he had with Doug, but after realizing just how badly his former owner mistreated him, he decides that what he really wants to do is bite Doug’s penis off — that’ll show ‘em. Joined on their mission of furry vengeance by the aforementioned well-endowed Great Dane, Hunter (Randall Park) and Australian Shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher), the ad hoc pack wanders through the countryside trying to make it back to Doug’s house, stopping along the way at a county fair here or to scarf down a patch of psychedelic mushrooms there, with detours to help find a missing girl scout and even a trip to the pound.
If there was reason to be cautiously optimistic about a raunchy comedy about a bunch of foul-mouthed pooches being dumped by its studio in late August, it’s the involvement of Greenbaum, who previously directed 2021’s blessedly deranged Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, as determinedly silly a studio comedy viewers have been gifted since the first Austin Powers movie. But the script by American Vandal creator Dan Perrault is distressingly short on ideas, and its moments of inspired digressions and non-sequiturs are so sporadic they almost feel as if they’ve been airdropped in from a better, weirder film; it’s no fun giving away the handful of actually funny moments in the film other than noting that the now de rigueur, WTF celebrity cameo here is one of the better recent examples of the trend, and there’s an especially dark twist on the movie trend of “narrating dogs” who seem to exist simply to offer from-the-mouths-of-babes insight into the behavior of their humans. The film’s greatest achievement is in how photorealistic and mostly seamless the FX work is, so much so it’s easy to take for granted that we’re watching actual animals deliver monologues about their psychological hangups and tormented pasts. But as wonderfully expressive as the “performances” are, they’re negated by the lethargic vocal performances by the cast — which only further stand out against what’s otherwise been an outstanding summer for expressive, counterintuitive, voiceover work in films like Across the Spider-Verse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — and how the screenplay is a pie made up entirely of low-hanging fruit; if you’ve ever wanted to hear a bunch of canines doing a moldy standup routine about doggy style sex, then buy your ticket now. Like the proverbial comedy sketch stretched out to feature-length, there’s scarcely enough here to sustain an actual film; morbid curiosity about how far it’s willing to go with all this dick-chomping business will only take you so far.
DIRECTOR: Josh Greenbaum; CAST: Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Will Forte, Randall Park; DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures; IN THEATERS: August 18; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.