One of the things I like about Joe Carnahan‘s films is that they filter drama and action through a working-class lens. Narc is on the down-and-dirty streets; The Grey is about a group of oil drillers trying to survive in the wild; and even his blockbuster feature The A-Team sides with guys just trying to make a living. The outlier is Smokin’ Aces, an ensemble piece that ranges from cartoonish to somber as assassins compete to take out an informant. Carnahan’s latest feature, Stretch, attempts to blend the slapdash attitude of Smokin’ Aces with a grounded, working-class character. The result is a movie that still manages to be endearing despite how often it tries to remind you of its weirdness.
Stretch (Patrick Wilson) is a limo driver struggling to turn his life around. A failed actor and former addict, Stretch owes $6,000 to the Mexican mob, and he needs the money by midnight or else he’ll endure permanent bodily harm. His potential savior comes in the form of the coked-out financial titan (Chris Pine), who might leave a big tip if Stretch performs everything that’s requested of him. As Stretch pushes through the Los Angeles night to perform his duties, he finds himself at odds with the cops, the feds, his ex (Brooklyn Decker), his company, a rival limo company, and his bookie. If Stretch can survive the night by finding his mojo, he might be able to get the fresh start he desperately wants.
All these antagonists keep Stretch and the audiences on our toes, and the more problems Carnahan throws in, the more unwieldy and exciting Stretch becomes. There’s not really any method to the madness as much as Carnahan just keeps tossing in new complications, having them pile up against his protagonist, and seeing if Stretch can face the challenges head-on rather than having everything settle down so he can turn the page on his crummy life.
However, this all-out approach works against the movie as Carnahan puts us into overload with the tone. The movie has a unique comic noir vibe as Stretch narrates his thoughts while speeding through the City of Angels. But he’s also accompanied by the ghost of a limo driver (Ed Helms) who keeps mocking him as if Stretch weren’t hard enough on himself. It’s an eccentric touch that doesn’t really add anything other than to remind us we’re in an exaggerated world.
We’re always being reminded of that fact, especially as we see Pine dress up in crazy costumes and act like nutcase. Before Pine became famous, he had a terrific supporting role one of the Tremor Brothers in Smokin’ Aces. But now that he’s a well-known face, it’s tougher for him to disappear into a role, and a crazy beard and crazy eyes don’t cover up his handsomeness. Sometimes movie stars can retreat into goofball personas, but now it feels like Pine is trying too hard.
This attitude sadly fits in with the rest of the film’s tone. I like that Carnahan is using the movie’s relatively low budget to swing for the fences, but it still feels relatively safe. There are plenty of obstacles, but it never reaches the levels of insanity Carnahan seems to be aiming for. It’s clear he wants something off-kilter as we can see in a limo scene where Pine is ranting and there’s red key lighting even though that light couldn’t possibly be coming from the limo. It’s meant to signal the character’s devilish intent, which is fine, but it’s divorced from reality.
Carnahan’s confident enough to never feel like he’s compensating, and the film is fleet-footed enough to keep the energy high, which is due in part to Wilson’s charming performance. Everyone involved feels invested in Stretch as an experience, and their desire to have fun keeps us enthrall. The manic mix of Carnahan’s style doesn’t totally gel, but Stretch is still a good ride even though it’s not really driving like a madman.