You can count the number of current real-life couples who make believable big-screen lovers on one hand. There's The Amazing Spider-Man's Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield (although they started dating well after the movie wrapped), Vicky Christina Barcelona's Penénolpe Cruz and Javier Bardem and, until recently anyway, Twilight teammates Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. To this extremely short list you can now add Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, the affianced duo at the center of the new action comedy Hit & Run, which Shepard also wrote and co-directed with David Palmer.
It's a little hard to put your finger on why exactly these two click so well together onscreen; this isn't a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers -- who, it must be stressed, were not a couple when the cameras were off -- case where he gives her class and she gives him sex appeal. Rather, it has more to do with a certain ease and comfort that they radiate in all their scenes together. Some screen lovers (whether they're together in real life or not) work too hard to sell the audience on the idea that they're falling for each other. Bell and Shepard aren't trying to convince us of anything -- they're just simply, visibly in love. It probably helps, of course, that the couple they're playing are past the initial "falling for each other" phase as well and deep into the next stage of long-term coupledom: planning a future together.
As Hit & Run begins, that future appears to consist of Annie (Bell), an aspiring college professor who specializes in conflict avoidance strategies, convincing her boss (Kristin Chenoweth) to keep her on at the C-level community college in the podunk California town where she lives happily with her fiancé Charlie (Shepard), a caring, attentive guy with no visible means of income. She doesn't win her job back, but she does get a lead on a newer, better one at a top-tier university in Los Angeles. Her boss has already pulled some strings, so all Annie has to do is show up at her interview the next day and the position is hers. This should be good news, but it spells doom for Annie and Charlie, since he can't move to Los Angeles. Not won't... can't. See, a few years back he was involved in some shady business with some shady characters and had to flee town with the aid of Witness Protection. Since the ex-colleagues he snitched on are now out of prison, he stands a good chance of being murdered if he sets foot within the city limits. But for Charlie, love turns out to trump self-preservation and so the one-time getaway driver pulls his souped-up automobile out of the garage where he's stashed it and invites Annie to ride shotgun on what may turn out to be a one-way trip to L.A.
Shepard has said that his chief influence for Hit & Run was the immortal Burt Reynolds vehicle Smokey and the Bandit and the parallels to that 1977 favorite are obvious throughout, starting with the way the star/writer/co-director has surrounded himself with his good pals in order to lend the proceedings the laid-back feel of a backyard BBQ. In addition to his fiancée, Shepard also wrote roles for buddies Tom Arnold (as Charlie's accident-prone witness protection minder), Bradley Cooper (as Charlie's former accomplice-turned-nemesis) and Michael Rosenbaum (as Annie's uptight ex-boyfriend). And also like Smokey, even though the frame is filled with fast cars, the overall pace is surprisingly lackadaisical; the stakes for Charlie may be literally life or death, but he's not in a hurry to get to his and Annie's final destination. It's actually nice that the directors give their cast lots of breathing room, as it allows the actors time to build on the character-based humor that Shepard is chasing after in the screenplay. The comedy doesn't exactly feel improvised, but it also isn't forced like they're starring in a wanna-be "wacky" sitcom. In that way, Hit & Run's more modern counterpart after Smokey and the Bandit may be Goon, the hilarious hockey movie starring Seann William Scott and a pre-Newsroom Alison Pill (whose career hopefully won't be forever ruined by playing one of the worst female characters in the history of TV) that came out earlier this year.
If only Hit & Run were as consistently funny as Goon. Unfortunately, big laughs turn out to be hit-and-miss. Shepard may have erred in giving his friends too much leeway, especially Arnold, who runs his stumblebum shtick into the ground early on. And after getting some early mileage out of his unexpected transformation into a Rastafarian gangster type, Cooper veers off-course as the movie proceeds, upping the intensity in place of the comedy. But then, the screenplay doesn't offer him a lot of guidance as it also spins its wheels for the second half, uncertain where it really wants these characters to go. Shepard's interest instead drifts away from his actors towards the cars, as he stages a series of admittedly well-choreographed chases culminating in Annie and Charlie barreling along the Los Angeles freeways in an off-road vehicle, their romance in tatters due to everything that's happened, but not forever ruined.
Even as the rest of the movie slips away from his grasp, Shepard ensures that Bell stands out amidst the auto-on-auto carnage. Since Veronica Mars ended its run, the actress has chased after big-screen stardom in formulaic romantic comedies (like the 2010 double bill of When in Rome and You Again) and outright stinkers (such as the doomed Christina Aguilera/Cher musical Burlesque) without finding a part that best showcased her appeal. (The best of the bunch was probably Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but that movie ultimately took too much pleasure in humiliating her.) Here, her hubby-to-be gives her a starring role that allows her to show more nuance and range than the typical female sidekick in an action comedy. Both onscreen and off, Shepard defers to Bell in every one of their scenes together, letting her set the tempo and allowing her to have the last word -- not to mention the best lines. If that's not love, I don't know what is.
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