Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hit and Run

Directors: David Palmer and Dax Shepard
Starring: Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Kristin Chenoweth, Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Hansen, Michael Rosenbaum, Beau Bridges, Joy Bryant, David Koechner
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Whenever seeing anything involving the Federal Witness Protection Program I always think back to that episode of The Simpsons when Homer wore and hat and shirt that read: "WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM." The main character in the action crime comedy Hit and Run would probably wear something like that, not out of stupidity, but just out of exhaustion from hiding for so long. He's played by Dax Shepard, who also wrote and co-directed with David Palmer what turns out to be something rare nowadays. A smart, funny, edgy and exciting mainstream comedy that marches to the beat of its own drum. That he's the brains behind this might be surprising to some, but not to anyone who's seen NBC's Parenthood where he consistently crushes it as a key player each week. Now with this, it seems his talents extend behind the camera as well, but it's still hard not to be at least a little surprised the movie works this well and that he's actually leading man material on the big screen. Besides utilizing a terrific cast well, he's also written for his real-life girlfriend Kristen Bell her strongest post-Veronica Mars role yet and one that brings all her strengths as a performer to center stage again. Which makes sense. You'd figure if anyone could figure out how to do it, it's him. I know I'm supposed to dislike the guy, but he's sure making it really difficult.
Robbery accomplice "Charlie Bronson" (Shepard), has been spending the past four years in Milton, California under protection and monitored by clumsy, incompetent and trigger happy U.S. Marshal Randy (Tom Arnold). He lives with his fairly new girlfriend, Annie (Bell), a professor at the local college who holds a doctorate in "Non-Violent Conflict Resolution" from Stanford and has just been informed by her kooky boss Debbie (Kristin Chenoweth) of an opportunity to head up her own department in Los Angeles.Only there's a problem: Charlie can't legally leave and her hilariously sleazy, overprotective ex-boyfriend Gil (Michael Rosenbaum) will do it whatever it takes to stop them, even enlisting the help of his gay police officer brother Terry (Jess Rowland) and recruiting the dangerous Alexander Dimitri (Bradley Cooper), one of the defendants Charlie testified against who's hell bent on evening the score. With Charlie driving his suped up, restored Cadillac, he and Annie are suddenly on the run from not only Dimitri, but Charlie's sordid past, the exact nature of which Annie remains in the dark about. Now besides Annie getting to her interview on time, both have to worry about even making it to L.A. alive.

Don't be fooled by the generic title. As far as action comedies go, this is better than most, with a clever script packed with jokes and smart dialogue that rarely miss the mark. Much of why everything works can be attributed to the fact that while the characters are colorful and their actions often unrealistically preposterous, it's kind of strangely grounded in a reality we can relate to. Shepard crafts a screenplay that captures the way people talk to one another, with the style of humor almost Seinfeld or Arrested Development-like in how ridiculously relatable it is and that's evident in almost every conversation between Charlie and Annie. They actually seem like a real couple who talk how real couples talk and joke and argue about things real couples do. Of course the joke there is that Bell and Shepard actually are one but that has absolutely nothing to do with the writing. And we've definitely seen more than a few off screen partners fizzle on screen due to a lack of chemistry so the pairing was far from a guaranteed success, even on paper. But they make the snappy dialogue come alive, sharing a natural back and forth that feels distinctively authentic and unforced. An argument about the ethics of using the word "fag" is surprisingly interesting and funny in their capable hands as is a scene in which Charlie explains to her how he decided on the manly "Charles Bronson" name.

From its opening minutes it's obvious this diverges from your usual comedies, taking its time getting where it needs to go, to the point that the real action doesn't really start to kick in until the third act. But by then we're so invested in these crazy characters we're practically on the edge of our seats waiting to see it resolve. The car chase sequences (and there are three notable ones) set to a solid soundtrack are a welcome respite from the CG enhanced chases we're used to and a throwback to when actual cars were driven by real people in movies. They're well choreographed and exciting, but more importantly, it's easy to follow what's happening and they exist for reasons that aid the story. But if I had to choose, the relationship arc works better as the film's surprisingly at its best when in full rom-com road trip mode. Shepard and Bell are just that good together. Annie's pacifist approach to solving conflicts makes for some really funny scenes opposite the quick-tempered, impatient Charlie and it feels like an even exchange. The two actors are really co-leads in this, which isn't a claim you can often make in mainstream comedies.

Physically, Shepard may not exactly fit the standard definition of your typical movie star, but here he transcends his supporting roots to carrying an entire full-length feature with offbeat charm and likability. Playing straight man to all the comic chaos unfolding around him he shows off a considerable amount of versatility, successfully fluctuating between the more broadly comic material of the film's first half and the off-the-wall intensity and violence of the second. He's a perfect match with Bell, whose performance in this couldn't have possibly come at a better time, reminding us what she's capable of with engaging material. It's something she hasn't been given in the past six years as this script gives her the opportunity to show off the quick, witty one-liners and smart delivery that originally caused TV audiences to originally fall so hard for her. It's fair to say after some dicey choices in projects, her future prospects have suddenly improved in a big way just within the past month with the announcement of the Veronica Mars movie so it'll be intriguing to see her try to capitalize on it. This role proves everyone right that she's got what it takes to succeed on the big screen, but who could have guessed that Shepard of all people would, quite literally, be the driving force who brings it out?   

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, especially a dreadlocked, pre-Silver Linings Bradley Cooper as Dimitri, who has a scene involving the purchase of dog food that's funnier than it has any right being. Tom Arnold turns in his most inspired comedic work since, well, True Lies, as clumsy U.S. Marshal Randy. The character isn't necessarily important, but he's likable and unannoying, with Arnold nailing every scene he's in. It appears Shepard pretty much just cast all his friends in this (right down to Parenthood's Joy Bryant as Dimitri's girlfriend and Veronica Mars' Ryan Hansen as a bank robber) but he made the right choices since they all do as good a job as possible in roles they're obviously well suited for.

In a perfect movie world more audiences would have heard about this and it would have done better, yet it's easy to understand why it didn't. It would be difficult for marketing to convey what a neat genre hybrid it is, and the plot and cast, outside of possibly Cooper (and even that was doubtful at the time), wouldn't exactly inspire confidence at first glance. It's one of those "under the radar" surprises that needed word of mouth to get people to check it out, but if they do now, they'll be shocked just how funny it is. There was hardly a moment where I wasn't smiling or laughing. Judging from what's in theaters it isn't easy writing and co-directing a creatively successful action comedy, not to mention a frequently funny one in which you're the lead. That Shepard can do this better than most his first time out is the biggest surprise. While he's actually believable as a motorhead action star, his true strength might lie in writing and directing romantic comedies he can headline with Bell. It's a partnership already off to a strong start.

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