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On Will Forte’s villainy.
WE’LL GET TO THE DOGS WHO CURSE—and thus incite laughter—in a moment. Before we address them, however, I would like to take a moment to praise Will Forte for taking a grave professional risk in the feature film Strays.
As an actor, your job is to be believable. Not realistic, precisely, but believable. For instance: Tony Stark isn’t a realistic character, but I believe Robert Downey Jr. when he smarmily informs Chris Evans’s Captain America—who, again, is not realistic but believable as a teen who takes magical steroids so he can throw a circular shield at villains in such a way that it always bounces back to him—that, absent Iron Man’s suit of armor, Stark is still a “genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist.”
When you’re a hero, being believable is fine. Good, even! Everyone wants to be a hero. And sometimes, when you’re the villain, being believable is perfectly safe. Anthony Hopkins is eerily believable as Hannibal Lecter, and that believability has helped transform Hopkins into a household name and Lecter into something of a lovable scamp. Sure, he eats people’s brains, but only when they’re rude. That’s our Hannie!
But playing a villain comes with certain risks, especially when the actor is playing a particularly odious individual. It’s still kind of wild to think about Leonardo DiCaprio, at the height of his powers as a movie star, choosing to play the grinning ghoul that is Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. I have seen people say they simply cannot watch Michael Fassbender any longer after his performance in 12 Years a Slave as the brutal plantation owner trying to break Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) spirit. Being truly villainous means becoming truly unlikable in a profession where likability matters more than just about anything else.
Which brings me back to Will Forte, who plays Doug in Strays. Doug is the owner of a scrappy little mutt named Reggie (Will Ferrell), who wants nothing more than to be told he is a good boy. Reggie doesn’t really think of himself as “Reggie” but as “Shithead” and similar noms de injurier, as this is what Doug has called him during their time together. Reggie becomes a stray after Doug drives him three hours from their home, tosses a tennis ball down an alley, and abandons him.
As Reggie wanders the streets of this unnamed city, Reggie teams up with Bug (Jamie Foxx), Maggie (Isla Fisher), and Hunter (Randall Park), who show him not only how to survive but thrive: the dogs go around humping stuff and drinking beer out of trash and causing all sorts of mayhem. It is funny, at least in part because it’s funny to watch adorable pups curse and act in the way we all know dogs to act but then to hear those actions explained in human terms. They turn a bunch of times before they sit down! They smell each other’s rear ends! There are also some delightful non sequiturs that I won’t spoil for you here (though, as is frustratingly common in the world of theatrical comedies, the trailers have given us a heads-up on a fair number of the funniest bits already).
As the quartet warms up to each other, they also inspire Reggie to realize that Doug is a bad owner. Bad owner! Bad. Owner. And bad owners get their dicks bitten off. (This is not a metaphor.)
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Forte is asked to do a very difficult thing in this movie: He is asked to make us believe his Doug is so bad, so wicked, that he deserves to have his manhood ripped out at the root by a pack of feral pooches, but also so pathetic that the de-wienering is funny in addition to being dramatically cathartic. It’s a narrow line to walk, but I think Forte pulls it off, which means he’s done his job! And, sadly, I now hate Will Forte. He did his job too well! I’ll never be able to see his crooked grin again without thinking of him menacing a friendly little pooch. Sorry, MacGruber. You’re dead to me.
One thing Strays does particularly well, in addition to making us want to geld Will Forte, is to serve as a reminder that some pictures just hit better in theaters: It’s fun to watch a comedy surrounded by laughing strangers. And the sound design in this movie is incredibly important in a couple of key sequences; at one point, the dogs are subjected to a firework show and you’re simply not going to experience that sequence properly if you’re watching it on your couch at home, fiddling with the remote to make it quieter when we hear the explosions as the dogs hear them. (Which is to say: terrifyingly loud.) You need to be as overwhelmed and overstimulated as they are to get the full effect.
Strays is silly and simple, but no less successful because of the silliness or the simplicity. Sometimes you just want a 90-minute, R-rated Homeward Bound.