Strays – movie review

You only have to watch commercial TV one evening to know that Australians love their dogs. I think it’s also fair to say Australians don’t mind a bit of ribald comedy. So Josh Greenbaum’s new comedy Strays should find a willing audience.

Greenbaum recently directed the well-received Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021), but moves into raunchier territory here. Dan Perrault, who has a background mainly in television, provides a very funny but pretty thin script. Kind of like that other recent animal-based comedy, Cocaine Bear, he takes a singular idea (in this case, dogs doing dog things) and builds a movie around it. Perrault tackles that brief by examining an abusive relationship (in fact, several) – which maybe doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but he generally carries it off.

Before going any further, just a note that Strays is the first ever movie featuring talking animals to receive an R rating in the US. That results from the film’s themes, its depictions of drug use and violence, and general crudity. So if you’re thinking about taking younger kids to this movie because they love dogs, maybe think again.

The central abusive relationship is between a mutt named Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell) and Doug (a very real Will Forte). Doug is a loser who’s blown up his own life (through infidelity) and has spiralled downwards ever since. But he blames Reggie – who was his ex’s dog – for it. He’s verbally abusive to Reggie – so much so that Reggie thinks it’s just normal. Doug’s various attempts to get rid of Reggie usually end in failure as the little dog is able to find his way home. So Doug decides to take drastic action. He drives Reggie three hours from the small town where they live to a big city (it’s Atlanta, if you’re wondering) and abandons him in an alley. When the bewildered Reggie is confronted by two much larger dogs, he’s saved by the quick-thinking Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx). Bug then introduces Reggie to his pals – Maggie (Isla Fisher), the once-favourite dog of a social media influencer; and Hunter (Randall Park), a former police dog. After meeting these other dogs, Reggie realises Doug has treated him appallingly. Despite having minimal clues, the four new pals decide to make the long journey back home – so Reggie can extract a very particular revenge on Doug.

Strays is one of those movies that I’m genuinely conflicted about. On one hand, it’s very funny, and not just in a gross-out humour way. Sure, Perrault has plenty of jokes about body parts and bodily functions, and they’re nothing out of the ordinary for this type of movie. But his take-down of those ultra-serious canine movies like A Dog’s Journey is priceless, if brief. And his observations on the value of friendship will resonate with many; although its schmaltz postscript might be a bit too much for its target audience.

On the other hand, I found it hard to get past the animal (and, by extension, human) abuse. The climactic scene was particularly tough going. Also, the plot is literally linear, so the outcome is never really in doubt. The film is ultimately very predictable, although Greenbaum does a good job of keeping things moving along at pace. Its crisp 93 minutes running time definitely helps, so it never outstays its welcome. And it might be just me, but I could have done with less of the Therapy 101 and more of the dogs behaving badly.

The producers clearly spent a ton of money on CGI for the animal characters – which works surprisingly well, if not perfectly. But other areas let it down. It looks kind of flat visually, and a couple of scenes appear to be slapped together. I’m also not sure the rap-heavy soundtrack actually fits with the story the movie is trying to tell, though it certainly has its moments.

The main “performers” are CGI-enhanced dogs, so assessing the “performances” is difficult. Suffice to say the voice talent is first-rate, with Jamie Foxx standing out as the potty-mouthed Bug. Will Forte is the human with the most screen time, and plays Doug as a particularly pathetic individual with a nasty streak. Josh Gad, Greta Lee and Rob Riggle also turn up in smaller roles.

By any objective measure, Strays is not a great movie. But it’s funny and delivers a few moments of insight. And sometimes, that’s all you need.

David Edwards

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