Back in January, Universal Pictures announced that it was shuttering plans to theatrically release “Narc” director Joe Carnahan‘s micro-budget comedic thriller “Stretch.” It was uncertain when (and if) “Stretch” would see the light of day, with THR commenting on “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum‘s overstuffed “movie morgue,” filled to the brim with movies that were finished but remained unseen. Now those movies are getting out there, through home video and VOD channels, for the whole world to see. They aren’t exactly being released, it’s more like they escaped. And the first of these movies happens to be “Stretch,” a wild, wooly movie that would have been way more enjoyable stretched across an actual movie screen.
In “Stretch,” a never-better Patrick Wilson plays the titular hero, a failed actor and current limo driver, who has had, in the past few years, developed a problem with booze and drugs and gambling, and in the same span of time gotten himself clear of all of those vices. (Somewhere in there he also fell in love and had his heart broken, both courtesy of Brooklyn Decker.) The movie takes place over the course of one single no good, horrible, very bad day, one in which his boss threatens to fire him, his old bookie wants to collect on overdue debts, and pretty much everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, much of that due to the actions of a gonzo billionaire named Roger Karos (played, with unexpected delight, by Chris Pine).
Structurally, “Stretch” is formatted like “After Hours“—it’s one of those movies where the night seems to roll into infinity, encapsulated not by the traditional three-act structure, but by a series of comic misadventures. In “Stretch” those adventures involve, among other things, hookers dressed in scary Halloween costumes, gangsters, weird sex parties, a mysterious briefcase, undercover federal agents (led by James Badge Dale, attempting a fancy French accent), regular visitations from the ghost of another limo driver (Ed Helms, “wearing a mustache he said he grew in hell”), and Ray Liotta playing himself.
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Carnahan has commented that he wanted to make an out-of-control R-rated comedy in the vein of “The Hangover,” and to that end thought a low-budget variation of this idea would be inherently commercial. Not only was he wrong about the studio actually wanting to release that kind of product (despite the sleeper success of dumb R-rated comedies like “Let’s Be Cops“), but what he ended up with was much darker and weirder and more existential. This, as it turns out, is a very good thing.
As a filmmaker, Carnahan has always veered between two extremes. There’s the Joe Carnahan who made “Narc,” the bleak crime drama that put him on the map (and got him such high-profile, and ultimately doomed, gigs as directing “Mission: Impossible III” and “L.A. Confidential” follow-up “White Jazz“) and the admirably bleak man-versus-nature gem “The Grey.” Then there’s also the Joe Carnahan responsible for the deliriously gonzo “Smokin’ Aces” and similarly unhinged “The A-Team” (another would-be franchise starter that ultimately went nowhere). While “Stretch” is more in the spirit of Carnahan’s wackier films, there’s a darkness that ribbons through the film that is keeping with the filmmaker’s more serious output. This is also what gives the film its edge. Carnahan has always wrestled with existential concerns (well, maybe not in ‘A-Team’), and he allows those concerns to seep into this film too, in a way that doesn’t detract from the fun.
The movie opens with Wilson talking, in voice over, about the nature of fate and destiny and how this really doesn’t apply. Like that unforgettable bumper sticker, the central message of “Stretch” seems to be “shit happens,” even while veering into truly insane territory, with crisscrossing narrative threads that intersect at every twist and turn. Carnahan may be a cynic, but there’s an element of almost magical realism to the outrageousness housed within the over-inflated bouncy castle of the film. There’s also the whole meta-textual element of “Stretch,” wherein the movie investigates what it means to be an actor. Not only is the title character a former thespian, but a number of characters act like they’re someone else and the fact that the movie has a character who is driving a limo through a series of bizarre tableaus bears more than a passing resemblance to Leo Carax‘s recent masterpiece “Holy Motors.” This movie isn’t as complex or emotional as that film, but there seems to be a similar attempt to boil down the essence of the human experience into a series of comic vignettes.
Somewhere around the third act, though, when the various subplots finally crash into one another, the movie’s manic energy starts to get the better of it. Although by this point, you’re either with it or you’re not, so another few minutes isn’t going to make a difference. Additionally, at various points in “Stretch,” you can feel the movie’s cheapness really come through, like once Universal decided to not go theatrical with it, they also slashed the post-production budget. Some of the music sounds like the temporary scratch tracks that you’d hear in a typical test screening, and there are minor technical quibbles here and there that probably would have been ironed out had the movie actually been shown on 2,000 movie theater screens instead of my Amazon Prime account.
That’s really the biggest bummer associated with “Stretch,” that this movie, as flawed and sometimes patience-straining as it can be, isn’t being shown on the big screen. This is the perfect audience movie, or at least the perfect Fantastic Fest movie, and for a certain crowd it would have been irresistible. It’s easy to see this blossoming into a cult classic of sorts, especially if it has an actual physical release somewhere down the line (it seems like the kind of movie you physically pass off to an adventurous friend). As it stands now, “Stretch” is a truly enjoyable oddity, a movie that was too brash, too weird, too idiosyncratic for a major release, but one that should settle into a nice, long shelf life. “Stretch” is a wild ride, and one very much worth going on. [B+]