Silver Screen: Hit and Run ***
What sets a labor of love apart from a vanity project? An individual co-finances, writes, produces, directs, and perhaps appears in a movie: Is he a clueless egomaniac like Tommy Wiseau (The Room), a do-it-yourself hellraiser like Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), or a fastidious auteur like Wes Anderson (Rushmore)?
Often the distinction is made retroactively, with the relative success of the project as the deciding factor. Mel Gibson's literal passion project was considered vanity of biblical proportions, but a few hundred million dollars later he was reconsidered as a troubled visionary-- at least until all his caught-on-tape antisemitism and misogyny got him traded back to Team Crazy. And besides, if a seemingly inevitable lack of financial success is the deciding factor, then Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Gus Van Sant, and other great filmmakers would be deemed to be merely indulging themselves.
Dax Shepard's car-chase caper comedy Hit and Run begs the question, vanity or passion? Shepard is not only credited as the sole writer and is the producer, codirector, and star, but he loaned his own collection of race cars and souped-up roadsters to the production and cast real-life girlfriend Kristen Bell as the romantic lead.
Shepard stars as Charlie Bronson, a former wheelman for a robbery crew who testified against his former partners when the work turned violent. Bronson, under the bumbling care of the Witness Protection Program, is relocated to a sleepy southwestern town and meets Annie (Bell), a beautiful grad student who teaches nonviolent conflict resolution. Despite warnings from the hapless U.S. marshal assigned to his case (Tom Arnold), Charlie agrees to drive Annie to Los Angeles, the scene of his past misdeeds, for a job interview. Annie's jealous ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum) tips off Charlie's former colleagues that he's headed back to L.A., setting up a series of goofy chases as Charlie attempts to evade both the cops and the crooks to get Annie to her job interview on time.
Making a movie that shows off your expensive cars, hot girlfriend, and washboard abs may sound like the apex of douchebaggery, but it's a stretch to accuse Shepard of self-indulgence when the whole endeavor is so lighthearted. Hit and Run is entirely frivolous, but it's a lot of fun. Despite the plot's seeming focus on guns, gears, and action, the movie runs smoothest during its quieter, character-driven moments. Shepard is equal parts charmer and goofball, and Bell is a pint-sized pixie with big comic talent who's as adept at playing scrappy underdogs (Veronica Mars) as she is veering into hilarious, bitchy self-parody (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Their chemistry translates wonderfully to the screen, and the scenes Shepard has written for them have a loose, easy naturalism. These are some of the best romantic-comedy scenes of the year, so much so that it's frustrating when the overtly madcap story intrudes.
Shepard and codirector David Palmer keep the tone breezy even as the stakes turn deadly-- perhaps a bit too breezy. The action sequences are so slight you start to wonder why we're bothering at all. Strangely, it's in these moments that Hit and Run feels like a vanity project, with Shepard and pals driving around parking lots and warehouses to no particular avail. It also doesn't help that Bradley Cooper, looking way more ridiculous in dreadlocks than could possibly have been intended, is cast as the heavy. Even by Hollywood standards he's an utterly implausible tough guy, so he's able to bring absolutely no menace whatsoever to scenes that would be improved with at least a little tension.
Hit and Run's shagginess often works in its favor as a movie well-suited to a drive-in screen or a summer afternoon matinee. It's Cannonball Run by way of Elmore Leonard, for better and for worse-- mostly better.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.