‘Strays’ Would Be Better off Being Left Behind
Making cute animals (or animal-like toys) say and do lewd things isn’t exactly a new premise. For one, the entire Ted universe exists, much to the world’s collective detriment. Yet, every so often, the formula is dusted off and pumped out once again, usually with some famous comedic actors taking on voice roles. What often follows is a constant stream of predictable jokes that rely on clichés and the incongruence of seeing something childlike and adorable swear like a sailor that’s just found out he’s got chlamydia. Will Ferrell’s latest effort Strays is now a not-so-proud member of that tradition, and unless you’re really into that kind of film, it really is not worth going to the theater for.
Strays begins with Border Terrier Reggie (Ferrell) narrating his life with the optimism of a, well, dog. The human (or, at least I think we were all human) audience can see that Reggie is in fact owned by a pretty terrible dude named Doug (Will Forte), who spends most of his time getting high and masturbating. So far, so familiar. After weeks of trying to get rid of Reggie by driving to increasingly obscure locations and dropping him off, Doug finally goes nuclear and drives to the middle of the big city, where he abandons the terrier in a random parking lot.
Alone and still pining for Doug, Reggie runs into an aggressively black-coded Boston Terrier named Bug (Jamie Foxx) who takes him under his wing. We’re then introduced to the whip-smart, slightly psychotic Australian Shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher), whose owner is an airhead influencer that has emotionally abandoned the dog after getting a new puppy, as well as Hunter (Randall Park), the big, scary, but ultimately terrified of confrontation Great Dane who works as an emotional support dog for elderly folk. After a bender that involves stolen pizza and beer, Reggie realizes how horrible Doug was to him, and the quartet of new friends embark on a mission. They decide to get Reggie back to his old owner, so he can bite off the thing that Doug loves most: his dick.
Penises play a large role in Strays, with it seeming like every third line is about someone’s (or something’s) dong. Hunter has a massive one, Doug spends all his time playing with his, and everyone is humping at least some of the time. This is as funny as it sounds, in that if you have the brain of a teenager raised in online games of Call of Duty you will find it hilarious. If your tolerance for bad, predictable dick jokes (with some admittedly funny ones thrown in) is less than that of someone who’s spent their formative years in chatrooms hearing about how great their mom is in bed, then you might find yourself thinking that you got the short end of the stick.
It’s not just the dick jokes that are stale and predictable. Nearly every plot beat felt like it was ripped from the bang average, bog standard gross-out comedies that littered the cultural landscape in the early 2000s. The dogs get trapped in animal control (or prison, in human terms) and organize a breakout; the dogs accidentally trip on mushrooms, leading to a sequence written by somebody who it appears has never taken mushrooms in their life; the cautious, gentle type snags the slightly neurotic but still incredibly out of his league woman after showing he’s got a bit of rough in him. It’s all there, and if you’ve seen literally any comedy Ferrell has been in before, you’ll find it very familiar.
There is a heart in there somewhere, but it’s nothing new or special. With that said, the only reason this isn’t a one-star review is because the ending at least kind of offers a type of emotional resolution that might even cause a tremor of feeling, at least if you’re hungover or recently bereaved. Plus, some of the jokes genuinely are laugh out loud funny. But, mostly, watching Strays makes the viewer certain that the writer’s room decided to delve into all the clichéd things the internet perceives about canines and wring every last bit of potential humor out of them like one might try to draw blood from a stone. The dogs pee on each other to bond. They are deathly afraid of fireworks. They eat each other’s excrement and vomit. These are all things we know, yet we are expected to find it hilarious when Strays points out the very obvious.
In fact, the best bits are all outside the main quartet, especially a brilliant cameo from Brett Gelman (Stranger Things, Fleabag). Foxx does a stellar job in spite of his script, although as a viewer it was a bit disconcerting that every time the dogs were doing something that they knew humans looked down on (the aforementioned humping, stealing food, more humping) rap music was blaring prominently, which felt a bit coded. Or, perhaps I was just bored by how predictable the movie was.
Ferrell uses his Elf voice throughout, which is grating at the best of times. It also feels weird knowing he’s the oldest member of the cast, yet playing a relative child compared to the others. Fisher and Park are also decent, although the former isn’t given too much to work with, unsurprising in a film that watches like there wasn’t a single woman involved in making it. Park, on the other hand, does a great job of selling his character’s self-depreciating nature, something he’s become quite adept at. There is one big gripe, though; while it’s a bit harsh to discuss onscreen chemistry in a live-action film about horny dogs who take mushrooms, the fact is that Park and Fisher really don’t seem to have any.
On the live-action element, it’s probably one of the only real redeeming factors for Strays. The CGI is utilized well, especially in certain scenes where the poor, predictable dialogue is pushed away for slightly better but still predictable transitions between plot beats. The soundtrack is full of bops, too, caveats about racist dog whistles aside. And, of course, what else would see the film off other than a ditty from Snoop Dogg himself? Told you it was predictable.
While it’s not fair to say that Strays is a complete waste of time, it also can’t be called overly entertaining, or all that interesting. If you’re awake late at night and are flicking through movie channels to avoid doing the smart thing and go to sleep, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to have on in the background while you doomscroll through Instagram. You might even laugh a few times. But, like the left behind dogs that it’s about, you’ll almost certainly forget about it soon enough.
An average, predictable script is rescued from being truly irredeemable by an excellent cast of voice actors and a few bright jokes.
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