It’s about time. A hilarious new voice emerges from the morass of thudding summer blockbusters this week in “Hit and Run,” a car-chase comedy with echoes of “The Hangover” by writer-director-actor Dax Shepard.
Dax who? He’s some quirky guy who you might know from his regular role on the TV show “Parenthood,” but make no mistake -- Shepard is a serious talent who puts it all on display in this tiny movie from fledgling distributor Open Road.
They sneaked the movie in Santa Monica on Saturday night, and I can’t wait to tell you: it’s a movie with a heart, and a voice and a brain and it ought to be a hit.
Shepard stars as Charlie Bronson, a guy living in the California countryside under witness protection with his professor-girlfriend Kristen Bell (Annie). When Annie gets a job offer in L.A., Charlie dumps his anonymity and heads back to his former life.
Former life = Brad Cooper in Rasta hair and lots of car chases.
The movie is studded with great performances from Shepard’s pals Cooper, the menace from whom Charlie is hiding; a potty-mouthed Kristin Chenoweth; Tom Arnold at his most bumbling while not technically intoxicated, and cameos by Jason Bateman, Beau Bridges and Sean Hayes.
The whole thing smacks in the best possible way of the Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller gang in the early days a decade ago. (Before that gang started churning out derivative gag movies like “The Campaign.” Think more “Pineapple Express,” guys.)
Shepard wrote the roles for the actors, who are all his friends if not family members, or, in Bell’s case, his fiancée.
Shepard told the Santa Monica audience that this was a quintessential indie project. He holed up for three weeks at the La Quinta hotel in Palm Springs to write the screenplay and shot it in under six weeks while on a break from “Parenthood.” His mother served as craft services, Shepard did all his own car stunts – including flying over two parked cars in one chase scene. (He declined to reveal the budget.)
He said he was inspired by “Pulp Fiction”: “I told myself I’m gonna give myself the freedom to write six-page butt-f--- scenes,” he said.
Which he did. That is a particularly hilarious scene in which Cooper (Alex) describes his jail experience (See the attached video in which Shepard shares how Cooper improvised a key joke.)
The movie started as a Lionsgate project, and ended up in the hands of Open Road, run by Tom Ortenberg (formerly of Lionsgate). The movie played to the rafters, but the challenge will be to get the word out, since Open Road is unlikely to have a marketing budget to match the likes of “Expendables” or “Battleship.”
Still, after a summer of exhausting superhero plots and cardboard Bourne excitement, “Hit and Run” should take off because it feels loose in that way that "The Hangover" did -- and then smacks you sideways with its smarts. The writing is razor-sharp and has you giggling from the first scene of the movie with a tattooed and bearded Charlie in bed with Annie.
Hang in there, Dax Shepard. You’re giving us hope for the movies yet. “Hit and Run” opens Wednesday.