‘Strays’: Josh Greenbaum’s Wild Buddy Comedy Goes on the Prowl

Getting dirty the right way means putting some heart into it. “Strays” is a movie with plenty of dog poop, pee, penises, and some murder, but by the end credits it might just inspire a tear or two. Director Josh Greenbaum has a fine command of a sense of absurdity, with that all-important eye for what’s genuinely funny in everyday life. Animal lovers feel a certain affinity to their pet of choice, because there’s something it channels that is almost very human. Greenbaum’s cast of misfit canines is decked with digital talking mouths, but their best moments happen when the camera simply focuses on a confused stare or passionate bark. We genuinely care for them even if the humans are the ultimate beasts in this story.

Our hero is a lovable Border Terrier, Reggie (Will Ferrell), who fate dropped into the presence of Doug (Will Forte). Reggie is eternally devoted to his master, but the problem is Doug hates the little dog to death. He would rather smoke his bong and spend the day masturbating (while mom and dad pay for rent), then even play catch with the furry pest. When Reggie unintentionally ruins Doug’s attempt at having two girlfriends, he gets dumped in the bowels of the city. Reggie is soon spotted by Bug (Jamie Foxx), a street-wise Boston Terrier who shows him the ways of free living. Bug’s pack also includes Maggie (Isla Fisher), a sharp Australian Shepherd and her buddy Hunter (Randall Park), a nervous therapy dog who could have once been a police canine. Even as they teach Reggie how to get free meals, claim street lamps via peeing or having sex with garden gnomes, he insists on going back home to Doug, since this must all be a game. When it dawns on him he’s actually been the victim of an abusive owner, Reggie develops a thirst for revenge that includes the desire to rip off Doug’s testicles.

There’s a refreshing, almost Punk energy to “Strays.” It tosses away timidity for material that is unashamedly raunchy but not without thought. Greenbaum knows how to mix endearing with ridiculous, as seen in his previous movie, 2021’s “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” a roaring celebration of desire at middle age where Jamie Dornan croons an ‘80s power ballad to seagulls. “When I read Dan Perrault’s first draft of ‘Strays,’ there was depth and heart and emotion. It held up on its own and it wasn’t what I thought or feared. It made me think of films like ‘Stand by Me.’ It had more to it as a buddy comedy and R-rated human story. That’s what hooked me in,” Greenbaum tells Entertainment Voice. As characters, the dogs are so well-sketched that they become more relatable than the humans. These are misfits rejected by the world yet imbued with typical group issues. Everyone can see there is sexual tension between Hunger and Maggie, even if Hunter is constantly wearing a cone out of sheer anxiety. Bug’s rage towards humans is based on past traumas to be revealed later. Reggie is particularly heartbreaking because he refuses to process that Doug was a monster to him. 

The “dog movie” has been around for a while, going back to those family-friendly titles like “Homeward Bound,” or dog-lover tear inducers like “Hachi” and “Marley & Me.” “Strays” rings truer, even in its moments of slapstick, because it mischievously imagines a literal street canine point of view. The friends wait for humans to drop pizza slices outside of a restaurant, have orgies with statues and comment on the size of Hunter’s penis. They strut down the street like “The Wild Bunch,” with Bug staring down some cats and mouthing, “Fuck you.” Poop can be a powerful weapon if arrested and tripping on mushrooms leads to a hilarious cover-up. Fireworks at a county fair can feel like World War III. The selected dogs convey such empathy and rebelliousness we never think of them as anything other than real personalities. Will Farrell and Jamie Foxx propel the material with voice performances that feel as if they were allowed to let loose. The entire cast has to tap into drama and comedy. This movie could be a comedic audiobook. “It was amazing watching them throw the ball between each other in the recording booth,” Greenbaum says about Farrell and Foxx. “I would come home and my wife would ask, ‘Why are you still smiling three hours after the session?’ I had just watched two geniuses just going at it.”

The world of “Strays” can be as entertainingly daunting as any human’s, full of lovers, like a couch Bug is obsessed with (voiced by Sofia Vergara) and the K-9 dogs who show off the alpha job Hunter wasn’t cut out for (voiced by Rob Riggle and Josh Gad). The ending becomes pure, fiery anarchy that is hard to resist. Here is one of those quirky delights that, like its characters, stands apart from the crowd by flaunting its misfit credentials. We root for the canines over the people, because their stresses and concerns are our own. Hasn’t everyone just wanted a little bit of freedom or the chance to tear apart a mean boss? Don’t we all have that friend who refuses to admit they’re in a toxic relationship? If you can relate to any of these situations, then you will certainly enjoy running around with this pack.

Strays” releases Aug. 18 in theaters nationwide.