The dogs from Strays

In Defense of the Unlucky 2023 Raunch Comedy Climbing the Ranks of Amazon Prime Video

Ask anyone who’s spent enough time indulging their creative muscles in writing, directing, performing, or just about any other medium, and they’ll waste no time telling you that comedy is one of the hardest things to pull off.

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Indeed, beyond the untouchable depths of its adherence to subjectivity, comedy only offers so much narrative heft in a story, so whenever a comedy film does succeed, it usually means one of two things: It gelled with another genre (such as horror or romance) well enough that the comedy could do what it’s best at without the added responsibility of carrying a plot forward, or it was confident enough in itself to supplement a genre-inclusive story through to its end.

Strays, the Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx-led raunch comedy that’s currently soaring on the Prime Video charts as of Feb. 20, was arguably one of the latter, but an unrecouped budget and a 53% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes suggests that most wouldn’t be in agreement.

Still, while Strays does have the problem of being confident without necessarily understanding its strengths, I’d argue that its second life on streaming has been well-earned, and that it wasn’t quite given the credit it deserved back when it was in theaters.

… But not too much more credit

As I mentioned, the best comedy films tend to know that a belly full of laughs isn’t enough to make a good, well-rounded movie, especially given how volatile of a goal such a belly is with respect to audience taste. Instead, these films develop a solid, hopefully though-provoking narrative to hold on to while sprinkling a generous dose of their own sense of humor all over it. (No Hard Feelings, which also came out last summer, is a great example of such a narrative.)

And Strays certainly has a story you can cheer for; at its core, it’s about an abuse victim who, during what first seems like the lowest point in his life, actually gets to experience and learn about healthy love for the first time, and who ultimately goes on to help nurture people who are now in the position he was once in. Sure, there’s a rather extreme revenge aspect thrown in there, but the film’s narrative heart is one that’s worn on its sleeve quite vulnerably, and that’s one of the most important ingredients in a straight comedy feature.

But, the problem with Strays, and the one that dragged it down only a bit too harshly, was that, while it had a tight grip on its approach to comedy, it didn’t really seem to know what it was gripping.

What do I mean by that?

Well, Strays’ comedy is a pretty even mix of outrageous, gross, and dark, and given that humor is, again, one of the most direly subjective things you can ever work with as an artist, juggling too many shades of it only increases the chances that your jokes will miss more often than they land. That, or the misses will outweigh or cancel out the landings in the aggregate.

And that’s exactly what happened with Strays; whenever its humor landed, it landed in a way that earned both its laughs and a subconscious acknowledging of the warmth at the heart of the story. But whenever its humor didn’t land, it really, really, really, really did not land.

To that point, I personally found the humor at its best when it committed to the “outrageous” category of its three hues; dogs as they are, with all of their quirky and loveable behaviors and fascinations, are already hilarious enough, and so using them as a backdrop for these enormous, foul-mouthed human personalities and relationships is a great comedy recipe. Compare Bug’s beef with his own reflection, for instance, with the panic-stricken realization that Reggie and his friends slaughtered a family of rabbits while high on mushrooms, and the “why” behind Strays’ fumblings becomes a bit clearer.

Moreover, watching a shelter full of dogs pooping on the floor montage-style is flat out gross, but seeing all of those dogs lined up in a military-esque formation, each of them with a uniquely-shaped turd sat in front of them and gazing up at their unwitting captor with soon-to-be-live hostility, is also kind of gross, but also quite hilarious, because that scene understands what makes dogs funny in the first place, and plays with how that specific brand of funny can be made even more funny (in this case, that element of coordination).

In short, Strays was a sweet little movie that just wasn’t quite smart enough to grapple with the ins and outs of its humor, but the result was nevertheless akin to a goofy golden retriever that, despite the many messes it makes, is still deserving of its fair share of belly scratches.

(featured image: Universal Pictures)


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