Film reviews and more since 2009

Strays (2023) review

Dir. Josh Greenbaum

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★

With its red-band trailers and rugged posters, which had the R-rating clearly displayed near the center, Strays promised one thing from the jump: foul-mouthed dogs behaving badly. For roughly 90 minutes, that is what you get. Every weed, dick, sex, fart, and poop joke you can imagine and little else. For some who are less-demanding of their comedy, it might provide a fun night out at the theater. Those seeking something with a little more heart ala No Hard Feelings from earlier this summer, you might be best served moving along.

Strays plays like a hard-R version of talking dog movies like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Homeward Bound, and there are a few hearty laughs to be had. The problem is screenwriter Dan Perrault (American Vandal) and director Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) are content with plucking the low-hanging fruit and playing to the ground-level seats with their comedy. It’s not that I didn’t expect to hear stray pups wax poetic about their love for couch-humping or urinating on items to mark their property. I was merely hoping, in addition to those predictable jokes, there would be wittier, more observational humor. Alas, there was not.

The film centers around Reggie (voiced Will Ferrell), a scruffy and gullible Border Terrier who is infatuated with his human owner, Doug (Will Forte), who absolutely despises him. Reggie’s antics cost Doug his girlfriend, but his constant interruptions to Doug’s fierce masturbation regimen and the destruction of his favorite bong prove to be the last straws.

Reggie loves the “game” Doug plays with him, in which he drives him out to the countryside, or even the woods, pitches his favorite tennis ball like he’s playing for the Yankees, and drives away. Reggie always finds his way back home, much to the chagrin of Doug (Reggie refers to the game as “Fetch and Fuck,” the latter being what Doug exclaims when he sees Reggie return home).

After several (failed”) attempts to rid himself of Reggie, Doug drives him three hours outside of town in the middle of a seedy city and abandons him, rendering the poor Terrier a stray. He isn’t on his own for long, however. He meets, Bug (Jamie Foxx), who has lived out on the streets for so long that he’s as great of a mentor as any. Bug also introduces Reggie to fellow strays, Hunter (Randall Park), a former police dog with a cone over his head, and Maggie (Isla Fisher), an Australian Shepherd who was too big to fit in her influencer human’s purse for Instagram photos. When the crew finally beats it into Reggie’s head that he was purposefully abandoned, Reggie comes up with the idea to find his way back to Doug and bite his penis off as punishment.

The quartet of canine voice actors do a solid job of distinguishing themselves as characters. Will Ferrell has the right inflection to convey Reggie’s naivete, but also his bravery (which is often underscored by his innocence). Jamie Foxx is pitch-perfect as Bug, the tough-talking Boston Terrier, who rubs dirt in Reggie’s wounds but also teaches him valuable lessons such as where the stale beer and pizza is on “scraps night.” Randall Park and Isla Fisher’s pups have a sexual tension going on, and Park strikes the right chord when it comes to playing a former police dog who is as big of a wimp as a spoiled Yorkie.

Funny scenes do exist in Strays. There’s a delightfully random yet quietly funny cameo from a veteran actor, who plays the simplest of birders. There is a K9 dog voiced by Rob Riggle that steals both of his scenes, and there’s one screamingly funny line at the tail-end of the film (I won’t ruin it, but it occurs at a dog-park).

The film runs the gambit when it comes to scatological comedy, and after an extended sequence of dogs humping lawn furniture and a close-up shot of a Shepherd’s penis, it becomes increasingly clear that Strays strives to be juvenile without finding the wit in its setups.

Consider a fun scene in which the four strays try to convince a dog that he can leave his yard and join them in their exploits. The poor pup is petrified of the “magical fence” that he insists exists despite it not being visible. The film shifts to slow-motion as the dog tries to make a run for the street, but is given an electric shock the moment his head extends past the sensor. The joke works for a number of reasons, but it also gives the impression that Perrault had to take time to build the situation for the comedy to work. Showing a close-up of a dog’s penis or a montage of dogs defecating all over the floor of a kennel? Much simpler humor that leads to much simpler results.

Strays doesn’t work due to its low ambitions, which is unfortunate given the depth of talent involved. The film is the rare miss from producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose production company has been on a roll lately with Cocaine Bear and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Perhaps in the midst of creating such high-concept driven entertainment, they were in need of an innocuous diversion. If that’s what you want Strays to be, even you deserve a bit more.

NOTE: Strays is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Voiced by: Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Rob Riggle, Josh Gad, and Sofía Vergara. Starring: Will Forte and Brett Gelman. Directed by: Josh Greenbaum.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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