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film review

Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell in a scene from “Hit & Run”

It's a rom-com, it's a road movie, it's Cars without the animation, it's A History of Violence played for yuks. It's all that and less because, really, Hit & Run is awfully hit & miss. The hits: a beguiling lead performance from writer/co-director/busy-guy Dax Shepard, along with some flashy streaks of clever dialogue – self-consciously clever, to be sure, but who's complaining. The misses: Tom Arnold, more Tom Arnold, a traffic-snarl of a plot, and not one but two scenes of full-frontal nudity involving very old folks divested of their clothes yet not, apparently, of their libidos. No doubt, in our aging demographic, sex among the geriatric set is laudable, even applaudable. Filmable, however, is another matter entirely.

Speaking of make-out sessions, the opening frames drop in on Annie and Charlie enjoying a post-coital chat on a bright summer's morn. They seem, at first blush, quite the odd couple. She (Kristen Bell) is a pert blonde sociology prof teaching in the outer groves of academe. He (Shepard) looks to be her latest soc experiment – a decade older, tattooed, unkempt and often unemployed. Clearly, though, the two are magic in bed and not so bad beyond either. They coo, they snuggle, they call each other "Buddy," that most ubiquitous of modern endearments. (Have you noticed how today's tykes are all dubbed Buddy by today's parents?)

On the subject of names, Charlie's last one is Bronson, although rest assured that it's a pseudonym and more meta than you think: "I actually named myself after the famous British prisoner who named himself after Charles Bronson." Such a relief, but why the need for a new moniker? Well, unknown to innocent Annie, he's in the Witness Protection Program, and his federal protector is the ever annoying Arnold, an uber-nincompoop whom we first meet in all his klutzy glory – forgetting to put his vehicle in park, chasing said vehicle as it rolls away, yelling "Halt," shooting the miscreant with his trusty sidearm. Expect more of the same later.

Before that happy moment arrives, the rom-com morphs into a road flick when Annie gets a job offer way off in California. For transportation, Charlie dusts off his customized, 700-horsepower Lincoln, even as the script dusts off his past – he used to be the wheel-man for bank robbers. Yes, the guy has enemies, among them his ex-partner in crime Alex (Bradley Cooper), not to mention Annie's ex-partner in domesticity Gil (Michael Rosenbaum). What's more, his enemies also have high-octane automobiles – for the former, a super-charged Audi; for the latter, some sports convertible whose make I failed to discern but, you know, it's fast. Pretty soon, out on the two-lane blacktop, darned if the cars aren't heavily invested in car-chases – a rare sight on the silver screen.

Fortunately, the chases are sporadically interrupted for chatter, the aforementioned clever brand. That's when A History of Violence gets mined for laughs. Sometimes, Charlie and Annie debate the character-is-destiny argument, wondering if the human animal can truly change its stripes. Other times, less existentially, they muse upon the question of whether a homophobic slur may ever be used innocuously as a playful figure of speech. Kudos, both sides make a strong case. Finally, at still other times, our chatterboxes mistakenly open the wrong motel door to reveal … yep, a quartet of naked oldsters in mid-swing. Sorry, expect more of that too.

Nevertheless, give Shepard credit for redeeming his writerly failures with a performing success. There's a bit of Owen Wilson in his manner, and he channels it to give this erstwhile redneck character a more sociable hue. The hat is off-white, the heart is near-gold, and the lingo is amusingly purple. Charlie is a hit. Otherwise, run.

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