It’s been said, probably, that every movie would be even better with wiener jokes. I don’t think this was said by very mature individuals, nor do I think they were sober when they said it, but I’m pretty sure it’s been said at least once or twice. Probably by college students binge-watching “South Park” and huffing Cheeto dust.
In any case, those amateur philosophers are probably the target audience for “Strays,” a talking animal movie in the illustrious vein of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and the Owen Wilson version of “Marmaduke.” But although the majority of films where live-action animals talk with the assistance of flappy-mouthed CGI are made for children — who theoretically are enchanted by such things — “Strays” is full of profanity, jokes about sex and violence, and pervasive themes about abusive relationships.
And while it’s easy to imagine a cranky old critic waving his cane around, complaining about subverting all these family-friendly archetypes, you’ll have to go somewhere else for that. “Strays” is trying to be offensive, and at some point it’ll probably hit your gag reflex (your mileage might vary on when), but it’s also very funny and, in its odd and exceptionally crude way, kinda sweet.
“Strays” stars Will Ferrell as the voice of Reggie, an adorable Border Terrier who absolutely loves his human owner, Doug (Will Forte), who absolutely hates Reggie’s guts. Reggie’s playful shenanigans cost Doug his girlfriend and his favorite bong, and always cuts into his (nearly constant) masturbation schedule.
So Doug drives Reggie out into the country, throws his favorite ball into the woods, and drives away as fast as he can. Then Reggie finds his way back home, “Homeward Bound”-style, and Doug has to run the routine all over again. Because he really hates that dog and that dog really loves him.
When Doug finally drives Reggie three hours outside of town and drops him in the middle of the big city, it seems like the game is over. Reggie is now officially a stray. Fortunately, he’s got an experienced mentor, Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who shows him the ropes. Anything you pee on is yours, for example.
After having the best night of his life with Bug and their friends Hunter (voiced by Randall Park), a former police dog with a cone over his head, and Maggie (voiced by Isla Fisher), whose influencer owner prefers her new, tiny, camera-friendly puppy, Reggie realizes for the first time that Doug never loved him. And that makes Reggie mad. So mad that he decides he’s going find his way back home and bite Doug’s penis off.
This might seem like a bad idea, but only if you’ve never met Doug. “Strays” does an admirable job of making Doug the kind of guy who, if you found out a dog bit his dick off, would make you think “Good dog.” If Doug had any redeeming qualities whatsoever, the plot wouldn’t work. So Will Forte has carte blanche to be the most unlikable character we’ve seen in movies in a long, long time.
Meanwhile, the dogs themselves are adorable, and not just because they’re fluffy. Reggie’s naiveté is balanced by his bravery and loyalty. Pug’s tough exterior masks a wounded soul, and he really cares about Reggie as a friend. And then there’s Hunter and Maggie, who are clearly in love with each other but unable to seal the deal in what dogs call “Regular Style.”
“Strays” was directed by Josh Greenbaum, an award-winning documentarian whose narrative feature debut, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” is one of the funniest of movies of the decade. Like “Barb and Star,” his latest film looks at first glance like a one-joke wonder, but it always finds new ways to make you laugh. The difference is the jokes in “Strays” have a lot more poop and pee in them. I repeat: A lot more poop and pee.
That might have been enough to make “Strays” a serviceable comedy, but the script by Dan Perrault (“American Vandal”) has some interesting ideas in it. The story is a clever subversion of the “Benji” formula, where instead of a stray dog finding a human family, a stray dog realizes he doesn’t need one. There are also wonderfully funny jokes lampooning other films in the talking animal genre. (The gag about “Narrator Dogs,” who constantly describe what their owners are doing, has a fantastic pay-off.)
As for the film’s hit-you-over-the-head theme about toxic relationships, well, nobody expected “Strays” to be subtle. And while it may be trying, with mixed-bag success, to connect with humans in the audience familiar with similar struggles, it’s genuinely successful at making you remember to go home and give some extra cuddles to your own pets, to whom you are their entire world, and who don’t understand that you’re trying to write a movie review right now and you’ll give them cuddles in a minute, OK? Is that OK? You need cuddles right now, don’t you? Alright, gimme a second…
Where was I? Oh yeah, “Strays.” Like I said before, the film is actively trying to gross you out and it’s very likely to do so. There’s a sequence in the middle where the dogs eat magic mushrooms that goes to a very dark place, and to be perfectly frank, I don’t think that was very funny. The film won me back quickly, but sheesh, read the room next time.
Yet for the most part, “Strays” does what it needs to do. It makes you laugh at dogs doing naughty things, and it makes you remember your pets need cuddles. OK guys, the review is over now. Let’s get you some treats!
“Strays” opens exclusively in theaters on Aug. 18.