“STRAYS”
Starring Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, Brett Gelman, Will Forte
Written by Dan Perrault
Directed by Josh Greenbaum
Produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Erik Feig, Aditya Sood, Louis Leterrier, Dan Perrault

By Matt Neufeld
August 19, 2023

“Strays,” a rude, crude, lewd and raunchy comedy that knowingly and goofily revels in its own R-rated adult-oriented humor and excess–and bizarrely succeeds as the very definition of a guilty pleasure–gives a crazy, irreverent and, yes, often hilarious new lift and definition to the August-oriented term dog days of summer.

Somehow, and it will cause headaches delving too far into just exactly how and why on any academic, intellectual level, “Strays” succeeds and is just plain laugh-out-loud funny–even though the movie gets its laughs at the quite obvious expense of a stream of penis, masturbation, excrement, dog sex, vomit, pee, drug, slapstick and more dog sex jokes, gags, sight gags, set-up, kickers, situations and laugh lines. “Strays” is one of those modern-day adult comedies in which it seems that most of the movie grew out of some controlled substance- and coffee-fueled writers room weekend bender romp where the writers were constantly challenging each other to see who could be more rude, crude, lewd, raunchy, offensive, immature, ridiculous, and, somehow, actually funny, too.

In the end, “Strays” succeeds and will make people laugh precisely because the movie goes so far, holds nothing back, is gross and simplistic and moronic, and because the writers, director, producers and actors clearly all know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. That may sound simple and easy, but regular moviegoers know that in recent years, too many comedies, at all levels of intended viewer demographics, come across as confused, rambling, disjointed, meandering, uneven in tone, unsure of their footing and, yes, stupidly unfunny. Comedy may seem easy, when it works, but often comedy is difficult to pull off on a consistently funny level. Truly successful comedy is serious business.

“Strays,” simply, is just funny.

That said, it’s still true that this movie, about four cute-looking but quite street-wise stray dogs who go on a road trip to enact revenge on one of the stray’s former owners, is certainly not for everyone. Some people may even hate this movie–and that would no doubt please the filmmakers, on some irrelevant, irreverent, subversive and gleefully rebellious level.

The four dogs are played well–entirely through most excellent voice work–by Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher and Randall Park. The voices, characterizations and acting are matched well with the actual, real, non-animated dogs who are carrying out the action on screen. Not every actor can carry off voice work–that’s a truism, and it holds for even some of our best thespians–and voice work takes a peculiar, niche, defined set of acting skills that, well, not every actor possesses. Non-actors may think it’s just standing in a studio acting into a mike, reading off the script on a stand or table, but true, successful voice work is much more than that. To succeed at voice work acting, the actor must transcend the obvious lack of live sets, locations and fellow live actors who would be roaming around on the actual sets, and focus intensely on the voice, the acting, the chemistry, the story, the interactions with other actors and characters in an entirely different way. The voice itself must convey the emotions, the actions and the characterizations at a continual, consistent high level of believability, without the usual support of live-action, real sets, actors, hair, make-up, costumes, blocking, movement choreography, cameras, sound, props and all of the other normal, regular, live-action filmic aspects of traditional filmmaking.

Fortunately for “Strays,” Ferrell, Foxx, Fisher and Park give an acting class on just how to perform voice work acting throughout the movie. As moviegoers get momentarily lost in the movie’s gross-out, ridiculous lewdness, rudeness and crudeness, they’ll also notice along the way that these four actors are portraying these talking dogs in that required continual, consistent manner of assured believability. Plus, they’re also funny.

Ferrell plays the lead protagonist, a cute, scruffy, sympathetic border terrier named Reggie, but “Strays” is really Jamie Foxx’s movie to steal and own. Foxx is just hilarious as the tough-guy, street-wise, conning, cunning, hustling and conniving Bug, a Boston terrier with street smarts, life skills, survival instincts and unabashedly direct and honest perspectives on everything and everyone, and he’s just drop-dead hilarious. Foxx can deliver laughs with a simple two- or three-word reaction phrase, or a simple sentence of direct reaction or explanation. Foxx’s performance in “Strays” is a welcome reminder that he’s still, as he’s always been, a good comedic actor.

While Foxx commands the movie as Bug, who leads the four-pack of stray dogs on their mission to get Reggie back to his owner’s decrepit home three hours away, they’re ably helped by Isla Fisher as Maggie, a beautiful, classy and somewhat reserved and quiet Australian shepherd, and Randall Park as Hunter, a huge, somewhat dimwitted, but well-meaning and lovable Great Dane. Fisher and Park deliver well. And, yes, Ferrell gives a welcome controlled, even-handed and even appropriately understated performance as Reggie.

The story is a simple one, and it’s mainly there to allow for the endless jokes and sight gags, and to convey an easy group of messages about friendship, the importance of the support of friends in life and the need to treat all creatures, in this case dogs, with dignity, respect, care and love.

Those last set of common sense duties are not followed by the story’s main human character, Doug, who early in the movie horrendously mistreats and abuses Reggie. Eventually, Doug drives Reggie three hours from their home and drops off and abandons Reggie in the middle of a crowded, dense, dirty and dangerous city. It’s there that Reggie meets fellow strays Bug, Maggie and Hunter. When Reggie tells his story, they all decide to embark on a journey back to Reggie’s home to enact that revenge on Doug.

A moment of bizarre compliments and congratulations have to be extended to actor Will Forte for quite admirably portraying Doug as, absolutely, hands-down, easily one of the most deplorable, despicable, dastardly, horrific, unlikeable and flat-out stupid villains in quite some time. Forte plays Doug as such a rotten, stinking, pathetic low-life cretin, Doug comes across as far more hateful than many of Marvel’s and DC Comics’ and recent action-adventure movies’ and recent horror movies’ cliched, cookie-cutter, formulaic bad guys. And besides making Doug just thoroughly, gleefully awful, Forte is somehow strangely funny in his hateful awfulness.

Believe it or not, there is an actual beating, caring heart in “Strays” amid all of the dog sex, poop, pee, vomit, penis and masturbation jokes. There is a message, as noted, about not mistreating, abusing, neglecting or abandoning dogs and other pets, and that is indeed a vital, important message in this country. Stupid people every month, across the country, mistreat and abandon dogs, cats and other furry critters, and it’s heartbreaking–and senseless and wrong, of course. “Strays” sends a message to these heartless, stupid people, and to everyone else, too, that dogs, cats and other animals deserve care and love and a safe, warm home, too.

“Strays” also sends a nice, heartwarming message about the importance of friends and friendship. Bug, Maggie and Hunter don’t have to make the sacrifice and effort and risks to help Reggie, but they do. They decide to help because they care about this innocent, cute, scruffy little lost doggie. And they care enough to sacrifice their time, effort, skills and loyalty to help Reggie. Even if their ultimate goal in their trek is questionable and wrong, even. But that subversiveness and irreverence and rebelliousness is there in “Strays” straight through to the end, and this rude, crude, lewd and raunchy movie unabashedly sticks to its goofball convictions until the screen fades to black and the end credits roll.

Fortunately in this turbulent, crazy, upsidedown August of 2023, moviegoers have a movie to wag their tails about and howl to the moon about amid these hot, humid and stormy dog days of summer.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.