‘Strays’: Raunchy talking-dog movie stalls when the humor stops and the violence starts

Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx have us howling as the chatty canines, but the joke wears thin and the tone turns dark.

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From left: Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Reggie (Will Ferrell), Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Hunter (Randall Park) consider a mushroom dinner in “Strays.”

From left: Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Reggie (Will Ferrell), Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Hunter (Randall Park) consider a mushroom dinner in “Strays.”

Universal Pictures

Just as “Sausage Party” was a raunchy spoof of family-friendly animated films and “The Happytime Murders” was an adults-only puppet crime comedy and “Good Boys” was a foul-mouthed take on middle-school coming-of-age movies and “Ted” was, you know, “Ted,” the R-rated “Strays” is a foul-mouthed and cheerfully gross takeoff on the sentimental talking-dog movie genre, e.g., “A Dog’s Purpose.” All right, OK, that’s a clever enough start, and with Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx as the lead pups, “Strays” delivers a handful of solid chuckles and a few laugh-out-loud moments — but it’s a premise that turns out to be awfully thin for a feature-length film. I mean, there are only so many gags about dogs humping, vomiting and pooping before you just want to give all the strays double treats and tell them it’s time to take a break.

Another problem with “Strays” is the opening sequence, in which a scraggly but adorable Border Terrier named Reggie (Will Ferrell, a master at sounding innocent and naïve and optimistic, which is SO Reggie) tells us about life with his human, Doug (Will Forte), a slovenly, selfish, stupid, no-good crumb-bum lowlife who took possession of Reggie out of spite when his girlfriend left him, and is constantly calling Reggie terrible names, pushing him off the couch and telling him he’s the worst dog ever. There’s no humor, none, zero, to be mined from this sequence, which only gets more heartbreaking when Doug keeps abandoning Reggie, who thinks Doug is playing a game and continues returning home until Doug finally drives so far, to the big city, that Reggie is hopelessly lost and alone.

In keeping with the R rating of this movie, what the actual BLEEP.

‘Strays’

Untitled

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Josh Greenbaum and written by Dan Perrault. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated R (for pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and drug use). Now showing at local theaters.

It takes us a while to shake off the cruelty of Doug and settle in for the hijinks that ensue when a street-smart Boston Terrier named Bug (Jamie Foxx) takes Reggie under his wing (paw?), teaching him the joys of being free to roam the world to do whatever they want, which usually involves humping, peeing, pooping and/or vomiting. We learn that Bug has enjoyed a long-term “relationship” with a discarded and dirty old sofa, while Reggie experiences the pleasure of having his way with a lawn gnome. Bug also introduces Reggie to his best pals and fellow strays Maggie (Isla Fisher), a kind and smart Australian Shepherd who’s been pushed aside by her owner in favor of a designer puppy, and Hunter (Randall Park), an anxious Great Dane who was too stressed out by his work as an emotional support animal to continue on the job.

Reggie’s new friends say they’ll help Reggie find his way home to Doug — so that Reggie can finally stand up for himself and get his revenge by biting off Doug’s most prized possession. Okay, so it’s not “The Wizard of Oz,” but we have a mission, people!

Along the way, we’ll learn a rather disturbing detail about Bug’s backstory, and we’ll see the quartet of lovable misfit pups make a lot of jokes about a certain kind of sexual position and get into all kinds of misadventures, including lapping up beer in an alley and getting drunk, and chomping on mushrooms in a forest, which leads to the obligatory hallucination sequence. (It’s my long-held belief that sequences of characters getting stoned — and this now extends to puppers — are almost never as funny as the filmmakers think they are.)

We get a couple of celebrity cameos — including one that’s spoiled in the previews, but I’ll leave it non-specific here — that are absolutely hilarious, and there are a few genuinely touching moments contained within the bawdy gags, as when the gang helps find a missing Girl Scout. Other bits, such as a giant hawk swooping down and snatching Bug, fall flat.

Whatever the combination of Practical Pup Effects and VFX employed by director Josh Greenbaum (“Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”) and team — it works. I mean, you either go along with that thing where dogs move their mouths and talk like humans, or you don’t. As you’d expect, Ferrell and Foxx and Park and Fischer have expert comedic timing, even while voicing canines. The doggos are having such a good time that we find ourselves hoping Reggie will just forget about the whole revenge quest, but alas, he makes his way back home — and there’s the monstrous and disgusting Doug, and we sigh heavily because we know the mood is going to get darker and violent but not necessarily funnier, and we’re not wrong. “Strays” might have worked a lot better were it not for the presence of that miserable human being.

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