Patrick Wilson in Stretch
  • Patrick Wilson in Stretch

I was looking forward to writing about Stretch—a cartoonish action comedy about a Hollywood limo driver having the worst day of his life—when it was supposed to come out in theaters back in March. I’m a fan of the film’s writer-director, Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The Grey), and I welcomed the release as an opportunity to address what makes him special. But Universal Pictures pulled Stretch at the last minute, and despite rumors that it would open theatrically this fall (after Carnahan reedited the movie to make it tighter), it was released onto VOD instead, and with virtually no fanfare. I imagine this turn of events has less to do with Stretch than with the growing reluctance of Hollywood studios to grant a theatrical release to anything that isn’t part of a franchise or that’s a prestige title with awards potential. (I addressed this phenomenon over the summer when I wrote about the direct-to-video releases of Blood Ties and Gambit). Though perfectly accessible and often quite entertaining, Stretch wound up another casualty of the zeitgeist.

Is it too much of a stretch (pun intended) to read the film as an autobiographical statement? Like Carnahan himself, who’s had numerous feature-film projects sent into turnaround, the eponymous hero has had a run of bad luck in Hollywood. Kevin is a failed actor reduced to driving a limo. After succumbing to a trio of addictions—alcohol, drugs, and gambling—he meets the girl of his dreams and gets clean . . . until she leaves him for the star player of the Cleveland Browns. Flash forward to a year after the humiliating betrayal: back to his old ways, sad-sack Kevin (who now goes by the nickname Stretch—his miserable job has superseded his identity) has found himself in debt to a bookie who vows to break every bone in his body if he doesn’t deliver $6,000 by midnight. The rest of the film depicts his mad efforts to pick up the richest customers he can in hopes of getting big tips—a sort of nightmare version of a filmmaker struggling to get a project financed—going so far as to undercut the rival limo service run by violent Russian gangsters.

Patrick Wilson plays the hero as a modern-day version of the put-upon wise guys William Holden once played for Billy Wilder, and his jivey voice-over narration recalls Holden’s ongoing commentary in Sunset Boulevard. A competent actor with a tendency to lapse into blandness, Wilson is just fine as the every-fuckup of Carnahan’s cynical vision of Hollywood. He makes for a solid anchor in an ensemble made up of wild character turns. Not all of the performances work—too many of the players go past cartoonishness and into unpleasant mugging—though everybody’s game, and the brisk storytelling prevents anyone from sinking the picture. (That reediting seems to have paid off.) As in Smokin’ Aces, Carnahan deftly adds one complication on top of another, building the action to a frenzy but without losing his control over the material. And as in Carnahan’s underrated The A-Team (a rare Dirty Dozen knockoff that genuinely evokes the antiauthoritarian bravado of Robert Aldrich’s action comedies), the director’s evident love of actors makes even the dumber jokes feel somewhat endearing.

The writer-director has never been all fun and games, however—beneath his films’ devil-may-care humor lies a blunt anger at real-world power dynamics. (As Ray Pride noted in Newcity, Smokin’ Aces is essentially an extended metaphor for the clusterfuck that was George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.) This anger comes through most explicitly in Stretch in the scenes involving the crazy billionaire (an uncredited Chris Pine, meant to suggest a latter-day Howard Hughes under a long beard and caveman wig) to whom Wilson ends up in thrall, scoring the dude coke and sex toys and even allowing him to set fire to the limo. There’s another thing that keeps the unsubtle, testosterone-heavy comedy from slipping into the obnoxiousness and misanthropy of Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain: Carnahan’s very real understanding of desperation, which provided the driving force of The Grey. Stretch might not be the most likable hero, but he nevertheless commands respect for taking so many beatings and managing to keep on.