Remember renting movies? Not through your cable box or on iTunes. Legit tossing on sweatpants and going to Blockbuster and walking around for forty-five minutes until you ended up walking out with A Civil Action, The Big Hit, and Universal Soldier because they were all marked 3 for $5? Time was, the spectrum of cinema available to us had a wider variety. In today’s world, there’s mega blockbusters based on comics or YA novels, the occasional romcom, and then some artsy shit for fourth quarter Oscar consideration. Gone are the halcyon days of the kind of middle-of-the-road films we’d rent on a Thursday night or watch on TBS on a Sunday afternoon. I’m not lamenting a dearth of lowbrow mediocrity, per se, but sometimes it’s nice to have a well meaning, semi-predictable, straightforward flick to throw on to kill ninety minutes.
Produced by Blum House and dropped on VOD by Universal, Joe Carnahan’s latest film, Stretch, makes a decent case for a return to the VHS days. Everything from its simple premise (a down and out limo driver taking a gig from an insane millionaire to pay off $6,000 in gambling debts) to its workmanlike execution seems singularly designed to recall the lost era of the video rental. Not too expensive to produce, enough recognizable names to get you to at least stop and look at the video sleeve, and just the right kitchen sink mix of romance, comedy and action. Not unlike the similarly unambitious A-Team adaptation Carnahan helmed, Stretch feels like a film aiming to entertain without overstepping its bounds. There’s not a single twist in its obstacle course plotting that you won’t see coming, but there’s also no screen time wasted. Even some of the cutesy dialogue and quirky asides are all working towards the common goal of making you smirk, if not smile or laugh.
Stretch has a lot of things going for it that similar underachieving films don’t, namely Patrick Wilson in the lead. Wilson is one of the most versatile leading men in Hollywood, but he rarely gets projects that can match the talent he brings to them. Stretch isn’t much different in that department, but Wilson is given enough to work with that he elevates the picture around him. He has Aaron Eckhart’s natural everyman charisma, but he can shift gears more quickly and more believably than a lot of his peers. Despite being really handsome, he imbues a regular guy aesthetic that makes him instantly relatable, even when portraying a character, like this film’s titular “Stretch,” who isn’t always easy to like.
A wannabe actor overcoming addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling, Stretch drives a limo around for celebrities (great cameos from David Hasselhoff and Ray Liota) and flirts with Hot, Nerdy-Because-She’s-Wearing-Glasses dispatcher Jessica Alba (a thankless role made better by her easy chemistry with Wilson). He doesn’t sleep much, so he’s being haunted by Karl With A K (Ed Helms) a former colleague who was good at the job but blew his brains out. Stretch presents a fully realized limo-driving community, complete with a rival organization run by an enigmatic driver with insane white hair. There’s also some stuff with Stretch’s ex-girlfriend, a MacGuffin, and a litany of random threats, all artfully placed throughout the narrative to raise the stakes. It all takes place over the course of one night, with Carnahan juggling multiple plot threads with surprising ease. It’s the same type of structure he implemented in Smokin’ Aces, but at no point does he try to pawn you off with a paradigm-shifting twist or more pathos than this admittedly rickety premise can support.
The secret weapon of this film is another Smokin’ Aces performer, Chris Pine, who plays Roger Karos, a frighteningly eccentric rich person who, in the hands of a lesser actor, would be an extremely cloying presence on screen. Karos is batshit bonkers and morally bankrupt, but his relationship with Stretch is reminiscent of the central pairing of Michael Mann’s Collateral, another film about a man forced to drive a crazy person around LA. He’s clearly a negative influence and a predatory element in Stretch’s life, but there’s a surface layer of brotherly concern that complicates things just enough to create palpable, intriguing tension. Pine has a blast here, as if all the milquetoast leading roles Star Trek has afforded him were ill-fitting, over-starched shirts and he can finally walk around topless. He’s always had a bit of a Brad Pitt streak (esoteric character actor trapped in the chiseled body of a pretty boy) and from the minute he appears in the film, he becomes an embodiment of the chaos that envelops Stretch’s life.
I think one more rewrite would have given this film a laser-like focus, but as it stands, the throughline of the narrative is more of a winding road than necessary. Karos and his briefcase goose chase don’t show up until thirty minutes in, and then he disappears for much of the second act. The situations and obstacles Stretch encounters entertain, but given the direction of the climax, more time spent between him and Karos would have been preferable. All in all, it’s a fun flick, letting Carnahan blow off some steam, skewering Hollywood at every opportunity with some truly imaginative voice-over narration. His vitriolic specificity still lacks of the conviction of a Shane Black, but there’s a vulgar poetry to the dialogue that’s infectious, particularly when coupled with some truly inspired visuals. At times the gonzo flourishes added to otherwise mundane developments border on Spring Breakers levels of artistic excess.
Luckily, in today’s climate you don’t even have to put on shoes to get your hands on Stretch, but you’ll still be left with the inescapable feeling that you have a video to return.
Stretch is currently available on Video On Demand.