Sometime after the fourth bottle of beer or the second edible, someone at a party probably said, “Dude, what if there were a dog movie, but it was, like, adult and stuff with drugs, cussing and sex?” A laugh was had, and the thought evaporated after a few more jokes. Strays is what happens when one of the friends at this inebriated gathering thinks that is a great idea and records the spitballed thoughts. It’s not as compelling once you sober up.
It’s not that the story of Strays couldn’t work, but it’s bound by the simplicity of being a typical dog movie formula with the typical “adult” comedy glaze. Reggie (Will Ferrell) is a dog too sheltered to realize his abusive owner, Doug (Will Forte), is a hateful man. All Reggie can see is a guy who wants to play fetch despite the many times he abandons the dog. When Reggie is left in the city, he learns the truth about his relationship, relayed by the other dogs.
The other dogs are the aggressive stray Bug (Jamie Foxx), Hunter (Randall Park), and Maggie (Isla Fisher). They show him the good life of living on the streets, where humans drop food, and you can piss/hump/poop on anything you please. After a night out on the town, they agree to go on a trip with Reggie. Reggie’s trip is one of revenge, where he intends to bite off his owner’s penis. And, yes, that scene does appear in this movie. Well, kind of.
This brings up my biggest issue with a film that markets itself as vulgar and provocative. It’s not gross enough to be wild or clever enough to be amusing. So while there is a payoff to Will Forte getting his dick bitten off, it’s not nearly as grotesque as you may think. But why, though? Why hold back on a film that wants to load up its gross-out arsenal with plenty of dog poop, erect penises, drug hallucinations, and F-words tossed around like candy?
The bulk of the comedy reveals just how repetitive this concept can be. Imagine every joke you’ve ever heard about dogs in movies. Nearly all of them appear in this film where the only punchline to the gag is a coating of profanity or a glimpse of bodily fluids. This results in a movie that resembles Sausage Party in that it presents terrible jokes, not because they’re gross but because they’re not funny enough for even a kids’ dog movie. You could easily trim out the profane peppering of this picture and still be left with a forgettable cute dog adventure.
What makes this misfire all the more disappointing is the potential it wastes. The only clever segment in this farce is when the group encounters the narrating dog from A Dog’s Purpose. The dog, reprised by Josh Gad’s voice, speaks of his master trying to come onto women but then switches it up by mentioning bodies in his basement. Not a bad bit. It excited me to see what other dog movies would be satirized.
But Strays spends far more time adhering to conventional dog-movie moments than playing with them. We’re left with a technically competent dog film in service of what feels like ad-libbed dialogue, struggling to squeeze blood from a stone. You can make only so many dog jokes before the corniness grows tiresome. When the fails, the film falls back on poop and pee. When it exhausts all the poop shots by the second act, it relies on the characters constantly swearing. There’s only so much you can take off before it becomes a numbing experience, where disgust is firmly replaced with boredom.
While Strays is certainly too raunchy to be a typical family dog movie, it adheres too much to that genre convention to ever be an uproarious adult comedy. Perhaps the teenager seeking a dog movie let off the leash of restrictive MPAA ratings will delight in a film where the bulk of the humor comes from saying the word penis and zooming on actual dog penises. But much like a dog who has pined for so long to be removed from the collar, there’s a sense of “now what?” when the shackles are finally broken. Strays is liberating for a few scenes, only to become a slog of tropes for the remainder of its dog adventure.