If the Academy Awards handed out those plastic trophies so popular at elementary school sports banquets, where the clumsy but well-intentioned kids are encouraged to come back and try again next year, “Hit and Run” and its writer, star and co-director Dax Shepard would be picking out tuxedos.
His second feature as a triple-threat (following 2010’s little-seen “Brother’s Justice”) certainly can’t be faulted for trying, as Shepard daringly shoots for outrageous humor that intelligently flirts with political incorrectness while simultaneously attempting to revive great car-chase movies in the vein of “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and two-thirds of the films made by Burt Reynolds between 1973 and 1984.
For all its good intentions, however, seeing “Hit and Run” is an experience akin to watching a basketball teeter around and around the rim before eventually thudding to the ground. With so many lazy and phoned-in movies out there, it’s uniquely frustrating to see Shepard come so close to his lofty goals and still fall short.
Shepard stars as Charlie, who’s been hiding out in rural California ever since he turned state’s witness against his former friends after they started robbing banks. Charlie’s happily cohabiting with college professor Annie (Kristen Bell), who’s been offered the opportunity to ditch the tiny local university for a shot at teaching at UCLA. Despite the fact that going back to the big city will expose him to danger, Charlie insists upon driving her there, so he pulls his custom Lincoln Continental out of storage for the trip.
Cue the high-speed road trip with calamity on all sides, from Charlie’s overprotective and accident-prone federal marshal Randy (Tom Arnold), to Annie’s obsessive ex Gil (Michael Rosenbaum), to a larcenous redneck (David Koechner) to Charlie’s vengeance-minded criminal ex-cohorts (played by Bradley Cooper, Joy Bryan and Ryan Hansen).
The movie certainly never lacks in forward motion -- Shepard, who co-directed with David Palmer, obviously wanted an excuse to drive a variety of cool vehicles -- but it never manages to build momentum, even with its contrived ticking-clock of getting Annie to L.A. on time. Editor Keith Croket frequently fails to keep things as tight as they might have been, and those extra seconds of air can be deadly to either a comedy or a car-chase movie, much less to both.
Then there’s the matter of the film’s audacious humor, which is more admirable than it is funny. Shepard clearly went after the idea of taking taboo subjects -- rape, the use of the word “fag,” etc. -- and trying to be witty about them while also acknowledging the fact that said subjects aren’t at all amusing. And while he manages to get through it without tying himself in knots or opening himself up to accusations of boorishness, the material still doesn’t pack a comic punch. You can respect this screenplay for the way it self-consciously teeters on the edge of bad taste without going over and still not laugh very much. (Especially at the running gag about the motel room full of elderly, naked swingers, which just feels mean.)
At the same time, there’s plenty to admire here, particularly the talented cast, who seem to be pitching in on this labor of love with plenty of good spirits. Lunches were no doubt lots of fun, and at least some of that bonhomie bleeds into the final film.
“Hit and Run” is a disappointment, but it’s the kind that makes me want to see what its creators do next, assuming they’ve learned something from this experience and can grow as filmmakers. As it stands, they’ve put together some delicious ingredients for a soufflé that’s collapsed.