STRAYS (2023)

Strays is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

Since I started reviewing movies again, I've tried to be better about logging my views and reviews on Letterboxd, the film-centric social networking site I usually neglect as thoroughly as I neglect all my other platforms. And there—as I do not do here—I rate the films I've watched on a five-star scale.

For the record, I don't think I actually believe in rating films this way: It's an arbitrary, reductive, and ultimately meaningless system that tells you almost nothing about what I actually thought about the movie unless you also read my long-winded review. (I attended a college that used narrative evaluations instead of numerical grades: I'm a big believer in narrative evaluation.) Still, it's an interesting exercise, and one that occasionally leads me to to think about how I approach and value individual movies.

Mostly, I've realized, I try hard to approach movies on their own terms: What were they trying to do, and how well did they succeed? For example, I recently gave four stars to a creepy little horror film called Talk to Mewhich is a better ranking than I gave either of the two big movies of the summer, Barbie (three stars) and Oppenheimer (three-and-a-half). Am I saying Talk to Me is more valuable than the other two? (No.) Am I saying it's a more significant artistic achievement? (No, not really.) What I am saying—and I'm struggling to articulate this thought as I write it—is that I thought Talk to Me came closer to being the movie it was trying to be than either Barbie or Oppenheimer did, and came closer to providing me with the experience I both expected and wanted when I bought my ticket.

All of which I'm thinking about today, obviously, because I'm not sure I have any choice but to give Strays (2023) a solid four-star rating on Letterboxd. Yes, friends, I don't like it either, but I'm about to be the asshole who says the raunchy talking-dog comedy full of dick, shit, and piss jokes is—in its own way, and on its own terms—a more successful movie than Barbie or Oppenheimer.

(You know why? Because it is.)

Will Ferrell voices a scraggly border terrier named Reggie—though he answers more readily to the name by which his owner Doug (Will Forte) most often calls him: "Shitbag." In flashbacks we learn that the loathsome Doug—an unemployed stoner and chronic masturbator—never wanted a dog in the first place. (He adopted Reggie to please a girlfriend, and kept him out of spite when the girlfriend came to her senses and left.) Doug has been trying to get rid of the dog ever since, mostly—since he's apparently too stupid to know that drop-off shelters exist—by driving Reggie increasingly far distances away and throwing a tennis ball, hoping Reggie won't be able to find his way home. But Reggie thinks it's all a delightful game, and—as only a dog could do—loves Doug unconditionally. (Basically, Doug is the ultimate personification of the sentiment "We don't deserve dogs.")

The plot is set in motion when Doug—who is also facing eviction from his crappy house—finally drives Reggie hours away into the city, and succeeds in getting him thoroughly lost. Alone in the big city, Reggie is taken under the wing of a scrappy, street-wise Boston terrier named Bug (Jamie Foxx), who also introduces him to other new friends: a cone-saddled, anxiety-ridden great dane named hunter (Randall Park), who washed out of the police academy; and a beautiful Australian shepherd named Maggie (Isla Fisher), who has been pushed out of the affections of her Instagram-influencer owner by a younger, cuter, more photogenic puppy. Together, this new found-family sets off to reunite Reggie with Doug before Doug moves away forever.

This "homeward-bound" premise has driven any number of family-friendly Disney and Disney-esque  movies, of course—including, obviously, Homeward Bound—but here it powers a hard-R "adult" comedy in which the adorable doggies hump a lot of furniture and lawn ornaments, trip balls on shrooms, and stage an elaborate prison-break that depends on a great dane's erection and the stockpiling of Weapons of Mass Defecation. And the ultimate nature of this heartwarming journey is the question that drives the movie. (Will it turn out to be a love story, reuniting Reggie with his soul-mate Doug? Is it a coming-of-age story, in which Reggie will move towards maturity and closure? Or is it a revenge story, in which Reggie bites Doug's dick off? Could it, somehow, be all three in one?)

In the woods, Bug (a Boston Terrier), Reggie (a border terrier), Maggie (an Australian shepherd), and Hunter (a great dane) contemplate eating some wild mushrooms for lunch in STRAYS.

Look, here's the thing. I went into Strays with the lowest of expectations, and more than a little animus. The movie was originally scheduled to come out in June, which meant that by its actual August 18 release date I had been seeing the trailer for it—in both general-audience and "Red Band" form—for months. I was thoroughly sick of it, and I felt certain that the limited humor potential of its premise was thoroughly exhausted there. I'm also a good four decades past being a 12-year-old boy, and therefore not really the ideal audience for what looked like a smirking, juvenile, aren't-we-so-naughty assemblage of easy dick and shit jokes. This impression was bolstered by the ill-advised choice to advertise Strays as being "from the studio that brought you Ted." (There are few creators I despise more thoroughly and justifiably than Seth Macfarlane, who has built a career on the exact kind of smarmy provocation I expected and feared Strays to be. Happily, Macfarlane is not actually involved here.) 

Thankfully, Strays has—the pun is regrettable—a much better pedigree. Directed by Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar), it was written by Dan Perrault, one of the creators of the fiendishly clever Netflix mockumentary American Vandal (which was—among other things—a series that knew how to do dick and shit jokes right). And Strays was produced by Lord and Miller, the creative team behind both the Lego and Spider-Verse franchises. These are all people who know how to do smart comedy, but just as importantly they know how to do story. I watched Strays with startled and growing awareness that it had: better acting (both the dogs and the humans that voice them); better special effects (the marriage of dog and human is seamless); a stronger narrative structure (the story is clear and compelling); stronger character development (every dog gets a full personality and a complete arc); and more genuine emotional stakes (the value of found families and rejecting toxic relationships) than most mainstream human-centric comedies I've seen recently. It just happens to also feature unbelievably crude jokes about dogs. (These elements do not turn out to be mutually exclusive: If you had told me I'd be emotionally moved by the sight of four dogs deciding to seal their bonds of affection by pissing on each other, I would not have believed you—yet here we are.)

I will not claim every moment in Strays works (it doesn't), or even that it does not at times deteriorate to an absolutely cringeworthy level of humor (it most certainly does). Some jokes fall flat, and some of the jokes that fall flat get called back repeatedly to belly-flop again and again. (Somebody clearly thinks Bug's sexual obsession with a disgusting discarded couch—"voiced" by Sofía Vergara—is funnier than I do.) But I also laughed, loudly and frequently enough to make Strays' 93 minutes pass quite enjoyably.

(Sometimes I laughed at things I'm embarrassed to admit, like Bug warning off bullies by claiming to have "every disease you can get from sticking your tongue up a dead squirrel's ass." Other things that made me laugh—like a clever bit in which the dogs try to convince a bulldog named Chester that he's been gaslit about the existence of an "invisible fence" around his yard—I have absolutely no shame about.) So your enjoyment may vary, and will depend a great deal on your tolerance for slapstick, scatological, and onanistic humor.

But here's where I come back to my theory of approaching—and rating—movies on their own terms. I do not assume that a raunchy dog comedy will be for everyone, and in fact the audience for this sort of thing may be fairly narrow. (I wouldn't have thought I'd be in it that target demographic myself. And it is not—let us be clear—for children.) But unless you are a professional critic—or a non-professional one like me—I assume that if you are watching Strays, it's because you want to see a raunchy dog movie, and you're just hoping it turns out to be the best possible raunchy dog movie it could be: one with a strong story, a wicked sense of humor, well-defined characters, emotional stakes, and the courage to go wherever its gross-out sensibilities want to take it. And that's what we have here.

That may not sound like much, but after a season that has included incomprehensibly wretched Transformer and giant-shark movies, a mediocre Indiana Jones film, indigestible family swill like Haunted Mansionand even a bafflingly ill-conceived Pixar movie, I am delighted and relieved to find competence and excellence wherever I can find it.

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