I went into Hit & Run with relatively low expectations, and left not only pleasantly surprised, but excited to share my enthusiasm for the film with others. This delightful little comedy is the work of Dax Shepard, a comic I have never been particularly impressed with in the past. But if Hit & Run is a success – and it’s certainly appealing enough to please a very wide audience – it will put Shepard on the map in a big way, for he not only stars in the film, but co-directs, writes, produces, and edits. He fulfills each task so well and with such impressive artistic authority that he absolutely deserves whatever notoriety the film will earn him, and I very much look forward to seeing where he goes from here.
Shepard and real-life fiancé Kristen Bell star as Charlie and Anna, a couple living together in a small Midwestern town. Anna’s there because despite having an impressive Doctorate degree, there are few colleges that cater to her field of study. Charlie, meanwhile, was relocated to the town after testifying against a gang of bank robbers and entering Witness Protection. Charlie is able to leave if he wants, but the one place he cannot go is Los Angeles, where the gang leader, who served only minimal prison time, lives. Things become complicated, therefore, when Anna is offered a lucrative dream job in LA, the very city Charlie must avoid. Throwing caution to the wind, Charlie decides to go with her anyway, but ….
… See, this is where things get weird. I love how and why things get weird, but it’s awfully hard to describe in text the central conflict of the film. It involves Anna’s insanely jealous ex-boyfriend, Charlie’s overly protective, completely incompetent witness protection handler, a couple of well meaning cops, and Alex Dimitri, the man Charlie testified against. All of them, at one point or another, wind up on Charlie and Anna’s tail. Charlie, in an impressive racing car he built with his Dad long ago, must eventually engage in elaborate chases with all of them.
If I described to you exactly how all these seemingly divergent elements fit together, you would tell me there is no possible way it could all work coherently in one comedy. And in the film’s early going, that’s exactly what I thought as well. Shepard puts a ton of balls up in the air – those I have described plus a dark backstory for his character, the ongoing romance with Anna, lots of characters and related subplots, etc. – and the most impressive thing about Hit & Run is that he handles close to all of them well. The film is a veritable cornucopia of tones, styles, and characters, but it all comes together rather seamlessly, and the beautifully controlled chaos is simply a joy to watch, especially with a receptive crowd.
First and foremost, Shepard’s script does a tremendous job with the characters. There are a ton of big personalities on display here, but each is very well defined, perfectly calculated to play a specific part in the zany proceedings. My crowd was particularly smitten with Tom Arnold’s Randy, the lovable, ineffectual Marshall assigned to protect Charlie. He’s a hoot, and the script walks a fine, precise line between mocking his ineptitude and mining organic laughs from his good, pure heart. Bradley Cooper too is a standout, playing wildly against type as the robber out to exact revenge on Charlie. The film gets markedly better in its second half when all these pieces are in play, and each of the characters start bouncing off one another with strong comedic effectiveness.
Yet the insanity of the supporting cast is always grounded by the central couple. I bought Charlie and Anna as genuine lovers right from the beginning, and a whole lot of the first act coasts by on their natural chemistry and charm. In most comedies, romantic or otherwise, I often find myself struggling to buy the main couple as a authentic romantic unit, but Hit & Run never has that problem. They are not only entertaining and endearing protagonists, but the highs and lows of their relationship truly matter. Through this couple, Shepard relates some extremely poignant, surprisingly articulate ideas about how we struggle to trust those we love, and how much romance can influence and shape our ever-developing personalities and worldviews. As silly as the film gets at times, everything involving Charlie and Anna is decidedly mature; the heart they lend the film grounds even the craziest of moments in palpable emotional honesty, a virtue some comedies far funnier than this one often fail to consider.
Shepard is excellent in his own part, warm, natural, and appealing at all times. He can be very funny, but mostly restricts himself to playing the straight man, and is excellent doing so. He makes for a very compelling leading man, and handles the tonal shifts surrounding the character’s past extremely well.
Bell’s character is a bit problematic as written. Shepard makes an effort to make her strong, independent, and well rounded, but she never gets to use the intellectual skills we’re told she has as part of the narrative, and that’s a bit of a disappointment. There seems to be a lot of potential to Anna left untapped. But Bell is such a relentless charisma machine, so effortlessly funny and three-dimensional, that those failings hardly matter. She makes Anna a character worth rooting for even when the script forgets to give her the proper attention, and she’s one of the core reasons the film works as well as it does.
Tonally, the film is all over the map, lunging from sincere to oddball to action-packed to downright surreal, often all within one sequence. Again, it’s the heartfelt relationship at the film’s center that allows everything to work, but even then, one has to admire the craftsmanship on display to bring so many eccentricities together. Shepard and co-director David Palmer choreograph the car chases beautifully, achieving an effective blend of tension and applause-worthy over-the-top mayhem, and the comic timing, especially when the film goes for dark or edgy jokes, is very strong.
I must admit, though, that even as I admired and felt exhilarated by the zany shenanigans, I did not laugh a tremendous amount at Hit & Run. I barely cracked a chuckle in the first forty-five minutes, and even when the film finds a steady comedic rhythm, I only laughed hard on a few occasions. I do not believe it is a major drawback, but much of Hit & Run is clearly intended to provide breathless, non-stop laughter, and on that level, I don’t think the film succeeds. For every joke that hits, there are just as many that do not connect, and while none of the film is aggressively unfunny, I think there are plenty of individual gags that need polishing. There is, for instance, a persistent overreliance on gun-related humor. Comedy is of course subjective, and I myself do not find guns funny, but there are too many moments when Shepard and Palmer think the mere presence of a firearm will generate laughs, when in actuality the best gags are quite a bit more complex.
But in the end, I feel that’s more of an observation than a complaint. I have seen plenty of comedies much funnier than Hit & Run that are vastly inferior films. Jokes only take a comedy so far. I would much rather have strong, interesting characters, a compelling story, and tonal creativity than momentary laughs, because those are the elements that resonate and linger. That’s where Hit & Run succeeds, and that’s what makes it a memorable cinematic effort. It has a clear, entertaining vision and is made with a strong, unique voice, something missing from too many films these days. It is not quite a great film, but it is a very good one, and I absolutely recommend it as one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences of the summer.