On August 16, 2023, a special screening for Universal Pictures’ stray dogs comedy “Strays” (released in theaters on August 18, 2023) was held at Universal CityWalk in Universal City, California. Attendees included the dog stars of the movie: Sophie, a Border Terrier, who plays Reggie in the movie; Bennie, a Boston Terrier, who portrays Bug in the movie; Elsa, an Australian Shepherd, who protrays Maggie in the movie; and Dalin, a Great Dane who portrays Hunter in the movie. (Culture Mix’s review of “Strays” can be found here.) Here are photos from the event.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Strays” features a cast of dogs and a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Four stray dogs band together to get revenge on the sleazy and abusive man who abandoned one of the stray dogs.
Culture Audience: “Strays” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and anyone who doesn’t mind watching intentionally vulgar comedies about adorable animals that have some sweetness with the raunchiness.
The purpose of “Strays” is to disrupt the image that people have of movies where cute animals talk. It’s the “Jackass” of talking animal movies: crude, comedic camaraderie. If you can’t tolerate a lot of jokes about bodily functions, then avoid this film.
Directed by Josh Greenbaum and written by Dan Perrault, “Strays” has been very clear in its marketing that this movie is not a “family-friendly film” that’s appropriate for people of all ages. This is most definitely a very adult-oriented film for adults who aren’t easily offended when watching movies filled with cursing, gross-out scenes involving body waste, and explicit talk about sex. The fact that domesticated dogs who talk like humans are supposed to be the source of all this raunch is the whole point of the movie.
In “Strays” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city but was filmed in and around Stone Mountain, Georgia), viewers are first introduced to the movie’s narrator. He’s an optimistic and eager-to-please Border Terrier (voiced by Will Ferrell), who has lived his entire life with a loser named Doug (played by Will Forte), who never gave this dog an official name. Instead, Doug calls the dog horrible names that usually have the word “shit” in the name. (In real life, this Border Terrier is a female named Sophie.)
In the beginning of the movie, bachelor Doug is unemployed and living in a messy house. Doug spends his days and nights getting stoned and masturbating. A phone conversation between Doug and his mother reveals that Doug can’t live near a school that has children, which is the movie’s way of saying that Doug is a registered sex offender. Because the Border Terrier doesn’t know any better, he thinks Doug is a great person.
Doug likes to do something that the Border Terrier thinks is a game called “Fetch and Fuck.” Doug throws a tennis ball far away, so the Border Terrier can run off and fetch the ball. Doug only does this because he hopes the dog will get lost and never find his way back home. When the dog inevitably does find his way back home, Doug says out loud in anger: “Fuck!”
One day, Doug drives the Border Terrier several miles away, into the inner part of a big city where the dog has never been to before. Doug throws the tennis ball, knowing that this dog will be too far away to walk back to the house. Doug then drives away. Doug’s heinous plan works, and the Border Terrier gets lost.
While out on the street at night, the Border Terrier meets a rebellious and tough-talking Boston Terrier named Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who sees how naïve this Border Terrier is and offers to teach him how to survive on the streets as a stray dog. (This Boston Terrier’s name is real life is Benny.) Bug calls this Border Terrier the name Reggie, since that’s the name that one of Doug’s girlfriends used to call this Border Terrier.
Bug tells Reggie that humans can’t be trusted and a dog’s life is better without having an owner because the dog has the freedom to do whatever the dog wants. Bug believes that humans “brainwash” dogs into thinking that dogs need humans. Bug also tells Reggie that stray dogs shouldn’t get too close to other dogs either, because all stray dogs should eventually learn to fend for themselves. Bug’s past is eventually revealed to explain why he detests humans. One of Bug’s quirks is that he is fixated on humping inanimate objects, including furniture (Sofia Vergara voices a character called Dolores the Coach) and lawn decorations.
Soon, Reggie is introduced to two of Bug’s closest dog acquaintances: Maggie (voiced by Isla Fisher) is an Australian Shepherd who is intelligent and has a super-keen sense of smell. She is a stray because her previous owners preferred to have a puppy. (In real life, this Australian Shepherd’s name is Elsa.) Hunter (voiced by Randall Park) is a Great Dane who is insecure and often fearful. Hunter trained to be a police dog, but instead he was placed in a retirement home to be a therapy dog for the elderly residents, and he ran away. (In real life, this Great Dane’s name is Dalin.)
This motley canine quartet then goes on a series of misadventures. All other animals in the movie do not talk. The only living beings that talk in the movie are dogs and humans. An English bulldog named Chester (voiced by Jamie Demetriou) makes a brief but memorable appearance as a neurotic dog who imagines that there is an invisible, electrical fence surrounding his front yard. The four strays also encounter a German Shepherd named Rolf (voiced by Rob Riggle), a K-9 police dog who trained with Hunter at the same K-9 academy.
Two other noteworthy dog characters in the movie are a philosophical Labrador Retriever named Gus (voiced by Josh Gad) and a feisty Chihuahua named Shitstain (voiced by Harvey Guillén), who is almost as combative as Bug. And when there’s a movie about stray dogs roaming around a city, there are inevitable scenes of the dogs trying to evade capture from the animal control officers. “Strays” also has some scenes that take place in an animal shelter, where an animal control officer named Willy (played by Brett Gelman) has a job that’s similar to a jail guard/janitor.
Dennis Quaid makes a cameo portraying himself as a bird watcher. Why is Quaid in this movie? Quaid is the star of 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose” and 2019’s “A Dog’s Journey,” two sentimental dramas about a “talking” dog (voiced by Gad) who gets reincarnated and whose thoughts are heard in voiceover narration. Quaid and Gad being cast in “Strays” is obviously the “Strays” filmmakers’ way of poking fun at family-oriented talking dog movies.
For a great deal of the story, Reggie is denial that Doug abandoned him and that Doug is not a good person. When the truth finally sinks in with Reggie, he decides that he’s going to get revenge on Doug, with the help of his new stray dog friends. If anyone watching “Strays” complains about how unrealistic this movie is, the question must be asked: “What part of ‘talking dog movie’ do you not understand?”
The comedy in “Strays” is far from award-worthy, but it does bring some laughs, and it doesn’t try to pretend to be lofty art. The biggest flaw in “Strays” is an over-reliance on jokes and gags about defecation. However, the best parts of the movie have to do with the friendship that develops between these four dogs. Hunter has a crush on Maggie, so there’s potential for more than a friendship between them.
The expressions on these dogs’ faces are enough to charm viewers who like dogs, although obviously much of what is in the movie involves visual effects using computer-generated imagery. The voice actors also play their roles capably, with Foxx and Ferrell being the obvious standouts. As long as viewers don’t have skewed or misunderstood expectations for “Strays,” it can be amusing entertainment with some genuine, laugh-out-loud moments. It’s not the type of comedy for everyone, but neither is “Jackass.”
Universal Pictures will release “Strays” in U.S. cinemas on August 18, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the fictional U.S. cities of Taylorsville and Vista Del Mar, the comedy film “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: Two middle-aged female best friends unwittingly get ensnared in a villain’s scheme to get deadly revenge on the residents of Vista Del Mar, Florida.
Culture Audience: “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who co-wrote 2011’s Oscar-nominated “Bridesmaids”), but “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a disappointing, uneven dud.
When close friends Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo first wrote a movie screenplay together, it was for 2011’s hilarious “Bridesmaids,” which garnered an Academy Award nomination for the duo, as well as a best supporting actress Oscar nod for “Bridesmaids” co-star Melissa McCarthy. Unfortunately, Wiig and Mumolo’s next screenplay collaboration is the messy and frequently unfunny “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” an awkward mishmash of repetitive jokes about being middle-aged women, with some sci-fi and musical theater elements that mostly fall flat. The movie definitely won’t be nominated for any awards, not even a Razzie, because “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is ultimately forgettable.
Directed by Josh Greenbaum, “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a frequently unfocused movie that loses steam in the last third of the film. Greenbaum has a background in directing sitcoms, such as “Fresh Off the Boat” and “New Girl.” And that TV comedy background shows up in the most annoying ways in this movie. The music score sounds like it was made for a sitcom, and the music volume is turned up to irritating levels because it interrupts the flow of the movie.
Unlike “Bridesmaids,” which was made for adults, “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” tries to be more family-friendly and therefore loses a lot of potential to have raunchy humor that’s genuinely funny. However, there are moments where the filmmakers tried to throw in some adult-themed content, such as drug-fueled partying that ends up with some of the main characters having a sexual threesome. But this very adult scenario doesn’t really work in this film, because the movie is too cutesy with its sexual innuendo, thereby making the tone of the movie look confused and ultimately ineffective. Imagine if 2009’s “The Hangover” or 2017’s “Girls Trip” held back on a lot of the things that happened in the stories because the filmmakers wanted to make these movies suitable for underage kids to watch.
In “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” Mumolo portrays widow Barb Quicksilver and Wiig portrays divorcée Star Testigivlio, two middle-aged best friends/housemates who talk in a Midwestern twang and embody every stereotype of being a very bland, sheltered and uptight middle-aged American woman. (The movie has a running joke about Barb and Star’s penchant for wearing culotte pants.) The movie doesn’t say which U.S. state Barb and Star live in, but their hometown is called Taylorsville, and it’s far enough away from Florida that they have to travel by plane to get to the Florida city of Vista Del Mar.
Barb and Star are motormouths who frequently talk over each other but don’t have much to say that’s meaningful. They obsess over trivial things, such as why they don’t want anyone to buy their favorite sofa at the Jennifer Convertibles furniture store where they work as sales clerks. They’re so attached to the sofa that they come up with excuses for customers not to buy it. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because one day their boss (played by Ian Gomez) calls Barb and Star into his office and tells them that they’re all losing their jobs because the company has gone out of business.
As Barb and Star leave the store in shock, a friend of theirs named Mickey Revelet (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey) sees them walking down the street and runs over to talk to them. Mickey raves to Barb and Star about just coming back in town from the vacation that she and her man Miguel took in Vista Del Mar, Florida. (It’s a fictional city in Florida. The movie was actually filmed in Mexico City and Cancun, Mexico.)
Mickey brags that not only did she have a lot of fun and get a splendid tan, but she also says that going to Vista Del Mar had this effect on her: “I feel like I got a soul douche.” That’s the type of dialogue in the movie that’s supposed to be funny. Before Mickey leaves, she hands Barb and Star a travel brochure for Vista Del Mar. McLendon-Covey was a scene-stealing character in “Bridesmaids,” but “Bridesmaids” fans will be disappointed that her role in “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is really just a quick cameo, since she’s only in the movie for about five minutes.
Barb and Star’s idea of fun is getting together not with a book club but with a talk club, which consists of other boring women who are around the same age. The members of the talk club gather to discuss a single topic per meeting. Shortly after Barb and Star lose their jobs, they’re at a talk club meeting, which is led by a bossy snob named Debbie (played by Vanessa Bayer) at Debbie’s home. Three other women are also in attendance: Pinky (played by Fortune Feimster), Delores (played by Phyllis Smith) and Bev (played by Rose Abdoo), who all do whatever Debbie expects them to do.
The talk club has certain rules that Debbie is fanatical about enforcing. When one of the club members is one minute late, Debbie locks the door and won’t let her inside. And the three cardinal rules of the club are (1) No wearing of sneakers; (2) No swearing, except for the “f” word; and (3) No lying. When Debbie announces that this meeting topic will be jobs, Barb and Star look at each other with dread because they’re embarrassed to talk about how they’ve become recently unemployed.
As the members of the club go around the room to talk about their jobs, (pharmacist Debbie is ecstatic when she describes how much she loves shaking pills in bottles while listening to music), Barb and Star continue to act as if they still work at the furniture store. However, the guilt of lying gets to Star, who blurts out that she and Barb lied and they actually got laid off recently. A furious Debbie kicks Barb and Star out of the club.
With their social life in shambles, Barb and Star decide to follow Mickey’s advice and take a vacation in Vista Del Mar. On the plane, there’s a sequence that goes on for far too long where Barb and Star ramble on about what kind of lady would be an ideal friend to lots of other women. They call her Trish and imagine all sorts of scenarios and personality traits that this ideal woman would have. And as soon as this becomes the entire plane conversation in the movie, you just know that there will be a character named Trish that shows up at some point.
Now for the weird and clunky sci-fi part of the story. It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that underneath the quiet streets of suburban Taylorsville is a high-tech underground bunker where a villain lives named Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig), who wants to kill the people of Vista Del Mar for a revenge reason that’s revealed in the movie. (It’s the most obvious reason possible.) The only way to get to the bunker is through a secret entrance in a tree trunk. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
Sharon has a skin condition that makes her look unusually pale and sensitive to being in sunlight. She always wears white clothing. And she wears her hair in a jet-black bob, which kind of makes her look like a cross between Gloria Vanderbilt and Tilda Swinton, if they wanted to look like a Goth who only wears white. Sharon has a bitter demeanor and she seems to have problems emotionally connecting to people.
Sharon has three people working for her: an unnamed elderly scientist (played by Patrick Bristow), a handsome henchman named Edgar Pagét (played by Jamie Dornan), and a precocious boy named Yoyo (played by Reyn Doi), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. In the movie’s opening scene, Yoyo is shown riding his bike while delivering newspapers and singing Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb’s 1980 hit “Guilty.” However, Yoyo is no mild-mannered paperboy.
The scientist tells Sharon that he’s found a way to genetically modify mosquitos so that one mosquito sting can kill a large animal in minutes. When the scientist finds out that Sharon wants to use these mosquitos to kill humans, he objects to this plan and then is on the receiving end of Sharon’s deadly wrath. Shortly after that, Sharon orders Yoyo to activate a remote control in an earring that he’s wearing. The remote control sets off a bomb that was in a newspaper that Yoyo delivered to someone’s front porch.
Sharon then dispatches Edgar to go to Vista Del Mar to let loose the lethal mosquitos on the city’s population. Edgar is infatuated with Sharon and there’s a not-very-believable subplot that Edgar wants to be her boyfriend, but she’s been resistant to the idea. Sharon has a dead personality, so it’s very far-fetched that someone like Edgar (who could have his pick of women) would be pining after someone who lacks charisma and is very self-absorbed. But maybe Edgar likes women who play very hard-to-get.
And so, when Edgar goes to Vista Del Mar and inevitably meets Barb and Star, it’s at a hotel bar. He’s pining over Sharon and distracted in thinking about her, while Barb and Star try to strike up a conversation with him. There are some shenanigans that happen between Barb, Star and Edgar that leads to a very cliché plot development in a movie about two female best friends: They end up competing with each other over a man. Take a wild guess who it is.
In addition to the sci-fi elements of the movie that are very poorly conceived (with tacky visual effects), “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” has some musical song-and-dance interludes that come out of nowhere. The first is when Barb and Star arrive at the Palm Vista Hotel, and all the people in the lobby break into a musical number to greet Barb and Star. Edgar also has an extensive musical number on the beach that involves an obvious stunt double.
There are also some other bizarre things in the movie that don’t work well either. For example, Star has a conversation with a talking crab named Morgan Freemond (voiced by Josh Robert Thompson), and the “joke” is that the crab sounds like Morgan Freeman and gives advice to the lovelorn Star. Damon Wayans Jr. has a useless role in the movie as a spy named Darlie Bunkle, who makes contact with Edgar. The running gag with Darlie is that he’s supposed to be undercover and always lectures Edgar to keep their communication “private,” but Darlie always bungles and reveals his own identity so that it’s out in the open and not “private” at all.
If the movie wasn’t trying so hard to appeal to underage audiences, it could’ve had more fun showing adults acting and talking like adults. Instead, by playing it too coy and too safe, the movie’s humor fails to be edgy or genuine. There’s a recurring character in the movie named Richard Cheese (played by Mark Jonathan Davis), who’s a singer/pianist in the hotel lounge. The joke is that Richard keeps singing about how much he loves women’s breasts, and he comes up with all sorts of ways to say the word “breasts.” It’s a mildly funny gag, but the humor is very juvenile, like 10-year-old boys giggling about saying slang words for this part of the female anatomy.
“Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a story about two middle-aged single women who go on what’s supposed to be a fun-filled vacation together, but the movie is so watered down, that Barb and Star might as well have been teenagers. Barb and Star are sheltered women, but it would’ve been funnier to have them experience culture shock in a raunchier environment. “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is one of those movies where the trailer makes the film look a lot funnier than it actually is.
Wiig and Mumolo (who are also two of the movie’s producers) are capable of doing much better work. Barb and Star are fairly one-note. And except for a brief mention of why they are single (Barb’s husband Ron died in an accident, while Star’s husband Carmine left her for another woman), there’s no backstory for these two central characters. It seems as if the filmmakers were trying to do a middle-aged version of 1997’s “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” (another movie about two sheltered best friends who travel somewhere to party), but “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” lacks a lot of the charm that made “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” a hit.
“Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” isn’t a completely terrible movie, because viewers can find some laughs here and there. (People who are under the influence of alcohol or other substances while watching are more likely to find this movie funny.) Wiig has better comedic timing than Mumolo, while Dornan has some deliberately campy moments that can’t save this embarrassing film. Andy Garcia and Reba McEntire have unremarkable cameos in the movie. Considering the level of talent involved in this movie, it’s a misfire in so many ways, and it will just make people appreciate “Bridesmaids” even more.
Lionsgate will release “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” on VOD on February 12, 2021.