Though it makes some attempts at finding genuine heart (and does at times succeed), Strays’ contrasting tones makes for an awkward watch.
Editor’s note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
It’s probably safe to say that, when you think of dog movies, you think of the inspiring, heart-warming flicks where a dog bonds with their human companions and traverses the ups and downs of life alongside them, as seen with A Dog’s Purpose or Marley & Me. Strays, the raunchy new movie from director Josh Greenbaum, takes the exact opposite track. Pushing the R rating to the extreme, Strays takes its eponymous pups on their own adventure, albeit one with drugs, many dick jokes, and lots and lots of poop. This is not a movie that will appeal to everyone, and occasionally seems driven more by shock value than anything else. Though it makes some attempts at finding genuine heart (and does at times succeed), Strays‘ contrasting tones makes for an awkward, intermittently funny watch.
Sweet terrier Reggie (Will Ferrell) thinks he has the perfect life with owner Doug (Will Forte), who loves to play catch with him over and over again. What he doesn’t realize is that Doug, a lazy, repulsive person, loathes him with every fiber of his being, and that the games of catch are meant to send him away. After Doug leaves Reggie hours away in an unfamiliar city, the tiny pup meets Bug (Jamie Foxx), a street-wise stray who quickly takes Reggie under his wing and teaches him the ways of being alone as a dog. As Reggie comes to grips with the fact that Doug wasn’t a very good owner, he sets a new goal: Return home and exact revenge. With the help of fellow dogs Hunter (Randall Park), Maggie (Isla Fisher), and Bug, Reggie sets out on his biggest journey yet.
Strays is at its best when it is poking fun at the well-known tropes of dog movies, as seen during a quick interaction with a dog voiced by A Dog’s Purpose narrator Josh Gad. Unfortunately, the movie is more interested in going for the simplest forms of humor, putting the dogs in situations where they accidentally get high, hump anything they can, and pee on each other. In the screening I attended, this prompted bouts of uncomfortable laughter, particularly in the moment where Reggie and his friends eat a bunch of mushrooms and get into some real, horrifying trouble. Greenbaum is eager to push the envelope of what adorable dogs can do, though they lose some of their sweetness after the millionth comment about Hunter’s sizable anatomy.
At the same time, Strays isn’t averse to a more emotional tone, whether that be through revealing the truth about Bug’s backstory or addressing Reggie’s abusive relationship with Doug. These serious elements don’t always mesh well with the profane comedy, but they do serve to deepen the narrative and show Strays has more to offer than another joke about how dogs have sex. It should also be said that the ending is very satisfying, both in terms of Doug’s fate and where each dog winds up. There’s some predictability here, but that’s okay. Having a hunch about where things will end doesn’t diminish the overall impact.
Strays‘ voice cast also proves to be a highlight. Ferrell nails Reggie’s naivete and curiosity, while Foxx deftly shows there’s more to Bug than the bravado he constantly puts on. Park and Fisher are both excellent additions to the cast, though their characters are often whittled down to a handful of facts, such as Hunter’s large genitals and Maggie’s recent abandonment by her owner. Reggie and Bug are the more developed characters by far, but Strays doesn’t seem too concerned with that either. The punchlines are the most important part, and not all of them land.
Strays has some smarts to offer, and it’s hard not to find some enjoyment in watching dogs run around onscreen. At the same time, its determination to always seek out the raunchiest, most unsettling situations for its characters brushes up awkwardly with its more heartfelt moments. There is almost certainly an audience for Strays, found within those who like lots of jokes about human excrement and sexual activities. For those who don’t like that, though, there isn’t enough of anything else to entice them.
Strays is now playing in theaters. It is 93 minutes long and rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and drug use.