The backbone of a good comedy is always, supposedly, the script. But in the case of Dax Shepard and David Palmer's marvelous road-trip comedy Hit and Run, maybe not. The key to the picture isn't so much the what as the how: Instead of handing over every joke right on the beat, Hit and Run lures you in with its jackalope rhythms. There's nothing else like it on the current landscape.
Shepard plays Charlie Bronson, a regular dude — or so it seems — who's somehow landed himself in witness protection. The one saving grace in his small-town exile — aside from the chance to give himself a name cooler than the one he was given at birth — is his girlfriend, Annie (Kristen Bell), who teaches at a local two-bit community college. Her dream is to someday use her doctorate in conflict resolution, pretty hard to do in a tiny town.
Miraculously, she gets her chance. (To give you an idea of the movie's gloriously whacked-out worldview, Kristin Chenoweth plays the fairy godmother who makes it so.) The catch is that she'll have to move to Los Angeles, and Charlie — who needs to remain under the cockeyed protection of the U.S. marshal who's been assigned to him, played by a shambling and very funny Tom Arnold — can't follow her there.
But after a bitter argument, he decides Annie's love is worth the risk. And so he tosses everything she'll need for her L.A. sojourn — in a silly-wonderful blast of movie logic, it all fits in a duffel bag and a little train case — into the trunk of a souped-up '67 Lincoln, and the two take off for a new life. This is a romance, after all, and Charlie figures he'll deal with any complications that arise.
As it turns out, the biggest one is played by Bradley Cooper in yellow-tinted aviators and deeply unflattering dirty-blond dreadlocks — and giving his best performance, ever, as a bank robber whom Charlie sold down the river years before.
Shepard wrote Hit and Run himself, possibly as a way of giving Bell (his partner in real life) a role worthy of the quicksilver gifts she brought to television's Veronica Mars. He pulls it off. Bell and Shepard are lovely together, whether their characters are squaring off or turtledoving.
As Annie, Bell is luminous and just a little loopy in a '30s-comedy way. Shepard's Charlie looks and talks like a dumb lug, but it's simply that he's got the kind of intelligence that needs to be teased out of him, and Shepard plays that deftly.
Charlie keeps Annie calm when she heads into a tailspin, and she helps smooth over some of his rougher edges, lecturing him on the reasons he shouldn't use the anti-gay f-word as a synonym for "lame." (She's right, and he knows it.)
As a bonus, Hit and Run — which shows clear affection for '70s exploitation pictures like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Eat My Dust — features more and better stunt driving than even the great (though perhaps not accurately named) Drive did. Some of it doesn't exactly qualify as driving: Arnold's character loses control of the minivan he's driving not once, not twice, but more than three times. Why should this become funnier each time it happens? You comedy theorists may know the answer, but please keep it to yourselves.
Arguably, these days it's easier to make a successful comedy than it is to make a romance. Miraculously, Hit and Run works as both. The picture's finest and perhaps most delicate moment arrives late in the game, after Charlie and Annie have survived many small arguments and some pretty big ones. Strapped into their car with those race-car driver harnesses, they lean in for a kiss, only to realize that the tightly buckled contraptions prevent them from reaching each other.
No matter — they drive off, putting the kiss on hold. Just because we don't see it doesn't mean it's not inevitable. True love demands a strong constitution, and an even stronger seat belt.