Strays Review: Please, Don't Let The Dogs Out

RATING : 2 / 10
  • Will Forte is great as an over-the-top villain
  • Pushes the gross-out humor so far it becomes near-unwatchable
  • Too much animal cruelty in the narrative to enjoy the comedy — avoid if you're a dog owner

A couple of months back, in my review of the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle "No Hard Feelings," I wrote that this was an early sign that the immature sex comedy was finally growing up to appeal to a new generation; the raunchy laughs were there, but they came a noticeable second to a melancholy coming-of-age tale. Two months later, and I would like to apologize for my naïveté, as in that film's wake comes another A-list gross-out comedy that takes the genre at least 10 steps back, prioritizing viscerally disgusting set pieces over actual jokes to the extent that watching it becomes an endurance test even at a relatively brisk 93 minutes.

"Strays" should be a delightfully lowbrow delight, an R-rated take on "Homeward Bound" with the darkly comic sensibilities of Peter Jackson's no-budget Muppets parody "Meet the Feebles." And I imagine this is how it played out in the pages of Dan Perrault's screenplay; as the creator of Netflix's ingenious, canceled-too-soon true-crime satire "American Vandal," he's proven himself as a modern master of the joyously juvenile comedy.

Not a ca-nine out of 10

The problem comes entirely through translation, which is not so much a fault of director Josh Greenbaum — whose previous film, "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar," might be the defining Hollywood comedy of this decade so far — as an inherent issue with this subject matter in general. A group of stray dogs going on a wild road trip, with several gags about abusive owners, dark side-effects from accidentally taking drugs, and the respective sizes of their penises may be funny when written down; seeing it acted out with real pets becomes deeply unpleasant very quickly. Even the best gross-out comedies can leave you needing a shower afterward — this is the first one that's ever left me feeling like I was implicated in a crime.

If you've seen the trailer, you've effectively seen an ever-so-slightly abbreviated version of the movie's opening 10 minutes. Here we're introduced to Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell), a Border Terrier who is forcibly kept by an owner who doesn't want him (Doug, played by the ever-game Will Forte) simply to get back at an ex-girlfriend who discovered he was cheating. Doug is a repugnant figure, whom Forte brings to life with the same brand of mania that's animated his performances in several better projects, from "MacGruber" to various "I Think You Should Leave" sketches — he's the overgrown man-child he's frequently typecast as, albeit a darker variation of this role.

There's a casualness to his animal cruelty, to the point that when it's revealed he frequently leaves Reggie in a hot car with the windows rolled up later on, the film hopes we're now desensitized enough to regard this as a dark joke within a more introspective moment. The film affords no sympathy to Doug, but simply writing him as the most despicable iteration this character could possibly be — whose abuse of his pet dog is shown extensively from the opening minutes — makes finding any laughs around him near impossible, despite the best attempts of Forte. The whole gag here is that Reggie's naïveté leaves him thinking Doug is the best owner in the world, despite his obvious cruelty; even as it unambiguously shows him as a villain, the movie has a comic wavelength too cruel to properly acclimatize to.

After getting stranded in a city two hours away, Reggie befriends the scrappy Boston Terrier Bug (Jamie Foxx), who soon introduces him to therapy dog Hunter (Randall Park) and Australian Shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher), all of whom are appalled by the treatment that he's suffered. Together, they hatch a revenge plan to head back to Doug's home and gnaw off his genitals, which is where "Strays" shows that it's painted itself into a corner. Make Doug's behavior less horrific from the offset and you make the comedy more appealing but its third act more disturbing; play it as dark as possible, and it becomes so unrelentingly miserable to watch that it's hard to cheer for a twisted moment of vengeance better suited to a Park Chan-wook film when it finally comes.

A lot of bark, not a lot of comic bite

That isn't to say that there aren't good gags on their journey, but all of them appear reverse-engineered, like Perrault had ideas for some good dog puns and found ways to sneak them into a screenplay. It's telling that almost all of the best jokes are G- and PG-rated. The film is at its funniest when it's not trying hard to disgust — gags about dogs hating postmen or not being able to tell knock-knock jokes as they can't stop barking at the door are funny in ways that extended sequences of pooping or humping inanimate objects could never be.

There's a try-hardness to the gross-out set pieces here, with more thought given to how far the creative team can push an R-rating in its most deliberately disgusting sequences than anything in the way of gags — let alone what an audience can physically stomach before the laughs completely dry up and they head to the exit. The most tiresome trope of any American comedy is the sequence where the characters accidentally take drugs; the utilization of that trope here pushes events in such a dramatically dark direction, it played out to a genuinely stunned silence in my screening, with only one voice nervously laughing to cover up the sheer awkwardness of being in that room and watching it unfold.

Then there are the tired sex and genitalia jokes. It's repeatedly referenced that therapy dog Hunter has a big penis and — in a sequence stolen entirely from, of all places, "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny" — the audience is subject to watching a dog get an erection to try and hit an escape button to get out of the dog pound. This happens moments before a montage of dogs pooping everywhere. I thought it'd be funny to wear a polo shirt with a dog-themed pattern to my screening, but I left feeling like I needed to burn it.

Director Josh Greenbaum has said that roughly 95% of the movie uses real canine actors, with very little CGI. While leaving "Strays," I wondered if this would be much more palatable if it was an animated feature instead. Would the screenplay's gross-out sequences leave the right kind of bad taste if I wasn't concerned about seeing animals in peril or witnessing dogs being made to hump everything in sight for the benefit of our entertainment?

I have no doubt that the production carefully adhered to all protocol when using its animal performers, so my concerns with the film itself doesn't reflect on this in any way. For me, the prolonged nature of the peril we see real animals going through, all played for laughs, made me feel more uncomfortable than I expected, and I'm not even a dog owner. If you are one, avoid this like the plague.

"Strays" is released in theaters on Friday, August 18.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn't exist.