'Hit & Run': Comic Surprise
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
If you've seen the "red-band" trailers for "Hit & Run" and you've been mostly turned off by them (I admit that I was), I have a catchphrase of advice for you: Don't believe the hype. It isn't that the relentlessly coarse gags involving nude orgying seniors and prison violation banter aren't in the movie; indeed they are, and if they weren't, I could have made a false advertising complaint or compliment. It's just that they aren't the whole movie. And also that they're funnier, and arguably less blatantly vulgar (like maybe a hair less blatantly vulgar), in the larger context of the movie.
"Hit & Run" as a whole is one of the summer's most enjoyable surprises, a consistently disarming romantic comedy written and co-directed by Dax Shepard, whose various capabilities as a comic performer still didn't prepare me for how sharp and well-done this picture is. A romantic comedy and anti-caper film, it casts Shepard in the not coincidentally perfect role of Charlie, a not quite ne'er-do-well in the Witness Protection Program. Charlie's sole salvation in the one-horse town he now lives in is girlfriend Annie, a teacher and an expert in "nonviolent confrontation," played by fresh and perky Kristen Bell. When Annie gets a job offer in Los Angeles, 500 miles away, Charlie, a scruffy ball of slacker charm who's all about being a better man, resolves to break the terms of his witness-protection agreement and drive Annie to his former home town.
Soon enough Annie will learn that Charlie is not merely in witness protection on account of having witnessed a crime: Rather, he was a driver for a group of nasty bank robbers who are now on their trail, thanks to a pushy ex of Annie's. The information-withholding creates some substantial trust issues for Charlie (whose real name is shorter and more hermetic, it turns out) and Annie, but they're obliged to work these out while one group of folks is out to kill them and another out to catch them. Or the would-be killers. Or some such group. It kinds of toggles around during the film.
The result is kind of like "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" meets "It Happened One Night." OK, not quite. But it's not "Grand Theft Auto" meets "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" either. A large portion of the movie is affectionate comic banter between Shepard and Bell, and Shepard's good at writing it, and the duo is excellent at delivering it. There's a lot of funny relationship stuff that contrasts Annie's overt sensitivity with Charlie's aspiration to nurture his own naturally sweet side, but none of it comes off as didactic. The amiable arguments over, say, the semantics of homophobic slurs are made funnier by the affection with which they're conducted. (It is here that I feel obliged to note that Shepard and Bell are a real-life couple, which doesn't out-and-out explain their great rhythm, but it can't hurt.)
It's romantic comedy gold, really, and the actual chase plot is pretty well-constructed as well. The parties after Charlie and Annie are a largely funny bunch (Tom Arnold, Kristin Chenowerth and Jess Rowland are among the MVPs). But Bradley Cooper turns out to be the weakest link as the lead heavy, a weak-tea variant of Gary Oldman's faux renegade Rasta in "True Romance." And while the car-chase scenes are not a problem conceptually, they aren't executed with the same kind of assurance and brio that the character interaction is. They aren't a drag, but they're not as exciting as they ought to be, either. But these weaknesses don't detract too much from the rollicking charm, which is substantial.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.