Hit & Run (**½)

From his initial breakthrough as a friend and co-conspirator featured on Ashton Kutcher’s celebrity prank show, “Punk’D”, it is quite remarkable to consider how far Dax Shepard has come in his career. Hit & Run serves as Shepard’s second foray into filmmaking and Shepard dons a lot of different hats in bringing Hit & Run to the big screen. Shepard not only wrote the screenplay, he serves as a co-producer, co-star, and co-director of the film and while he wore many of those same hats in his 2010 straight-to-home-video mockumentary Brother’s Justice, Hit & Run gives a wider audience a chance to see Shepard’s approach to storytelling. With Hit & Run, we find that Shepard has a bevy of crazy ideas racing through his head and with this effort, his romance/action/comedy hybrid is swollen with energy. And lots of it.

Shepard stars alongside real-life girlfriend Kristen Bell as Charlie and Annie, a couple, dating for just over a year, who are faced with some difficult decisions. Annie is a professor with a degree in non-conflict dispute resolution and her boss (Kristin Chenoweth) has offered Annie a dream job in Los Angeles, 500 miles away from where Charlie and Annie have been living in tiny little Milton, California. If relocation is problematic, since Annie has been told she will be laid off if she does not get the job, Charlie simply cannot leave. As a member of the Witness Protection Program, Charlie Bronson (not his real name…) must clear any relocation with a U.S. Marshal (Tom Arnold), who is tasked with keeping tabs on Charlie. In deciding to drive Annie to Los Angeles, Charlie impulsively sets out to return to the place where he found himself immersed in some serious legal trouble, forcing the Marshal to chase after him in a cumbersome minivan.

At this point, Hit & Run becomes a road-trip movie where Charlie pulls out a ’67 Lincoln Continental, which Annie had been told was broken down and undriveable. Between the Marshal’s constant ineptitude and a disgruntled ex-boyfriend, Gil (Matthew Rosenbaum), who still feels he must protect Annie and thus, follows Charlie and Annie all the way to Los Angeles, Hit & Run hits on some nice moments; balancing terrific interaction and chemistry between the real-life lovers Shepard and Bell and a handful of inspired moments of raunchy humor.

Naturally, in a film such as this, characters are connected in ways the main characters would never be aware of and without ruining too much of the plot, Gil connects with his brother (Jess Rowland), a local police officer, who researches the Lincoln’s license plates. Google searches provide Gil with Charlie’s real name and the details which led to Charlie being placed in the Witness Protection Program. This discovery is then sent along to Gil’s Facebook friend Alex (Bradley Cooper), who along with girlfriend Neve (Joy Bryant) and a third lackey, Allen (Ryan Hansen), start to involve themselves in attempting to find and reacquaint themselves with Charlie. Charlie simply has to get Annie to L.A. in 48 hours. And naturally, not one element of this road trip ever goes as planned.

Hit & Run is funny at times, flat in others, but there is no denying that Dax Shepard is as engaged with his story and film as anyone in recent memory. His energy is infectious and it is clear that he and Kristen Bell are having a wonderful time together, riffing off of one another in the car, and playing off what the other is giving them effortlessly. Since her transition to full-time film acting, Kristen Bell has never been this endearing or less guarded. I actually believed in her and Charlie’s relationship, even when things go a bit off the rails with Shepard’s inability to disquiet his sophomoric impulses in telling his story.

A gag inspiring some unfortunate motel swingers is as shocking as it is funny, but scenes involving characters slipping up and trying to talk themselves out of verbal holes they have dug becomes wearisome. The film’s balance of action, violence, car chases, romance, and goofy comedy is, in equal measure, messy, unfocused, and yet watchable all and the same. Tired gags are saved by inventive ones and when Shepard’s Charlie/Annie love story becomes far too unbelievable, something comes along to make the film distract you enough from its escalating weaknesses.

Overlong at 100 minutes, Hit & Run is hardly perfect but Dax Shepard is a capable filmmaker. Working for a second time with co-director David Palmer, the tonal shifts and difficulty in defining itself is concerning if Shepard, with or without Palmer, hopes to continue writing and directing his own work. Shepard is so likable on screen, with his disarming grin and quick wit, it becomes completely easy to jump in the car and go for a ride to his ultimate destination. With a funny turn from Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper just going with it as a tracksuit wearing, badly dreadlocked former bank robber, and some inspired chase sequences, Hit & Run made me laugh and chuckle a considerable amount.

As annoying as Kristin Chenoweth is here and some of the more important supporting characters are written as truly nothing more than stock movie caricatures, I wish more filmmakers had the exuberance and “let’s do this” enthusiasm that Dax Shepard and David Palmer not only possess in themselves, but clearly bring forth in the people they work with. Hit & Run‘s goofy, vulgar, raunchy, and considerable messiness acknowledged, I am now curious to see Shepard’s next project. Never thought I would be saying that.