It has become common practice now for studios to release certain movies on download or streaming services instead of the theater. This course of action comes with certain advantages. For one, it allows them to forego the millions of dollars involved in a marketing campaign of TV spots, billboards and restaurant endorsements. For another, it solves the tricky problem of selling to the public a “tricky” movie: a film that can’t be neatly packaged and sold to a certain crowd. This is especially true of indies; this shift means more views (not to mention revenue) for features that would usually be seen in limited release on certain screens around the country while big budget blockbusters flatten them at the domestic box office.
With digital downloads ranging from $15 to $20 a piece — more than the cost of most matinee tickets these days — Hollywood bigwigs need not worry about the cumbersome task of targeting an audience and losing tons of money if they guess wrong. As a result, it’s always a crapshoot; the movie can sink or swim on its own, finding a niche or fading into oblivion with little to no risk.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” is a good recent example of this. The Korean dystopian science fiction art house action film was released in the U.S. in late June, playing at only eight theaters. Five weeks into its theatrical run, it amassed a modest haul of $3.9 million. Soon after, it was released on video on demand, surprisingly raking in $3.8 million in only two weeks. In just three weeks, it had made almost $5 million, something theater sales had failed to do in six.
Acclaimed for its cinematography and visual commentary, it benefitted from this theater bypass model that looks to be the future for underdog movies that don’t stand a fighting chance against the likes of giant nuclear lizards and transforming alien robots.
The latest movie making rounds at the home box office is “Stretch,” a modestly budgeted dark comic thriller that never quite finds its footing among the genres. No wonder Universal Studios decided to rescind its March 2014 theatrical release and place it in the hands of Internet and cable providers.
The movie (released online Oct. 7 and VOD Oct. 14) was written and directed by Joe Carnahan, a guy known for his manically edited, style-over-substance cinematic outings like “Smokin’ Aces” (2007), “The A-Team” (2010) and “The Grey” (2012), all of which had better and more entertaining executions than his newest film. Carnahan’s movie style often shows a Quentin Tarantino-esque flair for turning violence into unexpected nonchalant humor that borders on the absurd.
However, “Stretch” is neither funny nor engaging enough to be considered anything but a waste of time. Patrick Wilson (“Watchmen”) stars as Stretch, a loser Hollywood limo driver with aspirations of being an actor who doesn’t believe in destiny or fate. His nickname is an obvious reference to his profession. With past gambling and drug addictions, his life is a mess but he plans to push the reset button after paying off some outstanding debts. Wilson — who played a sleazy CIA agent in Carnahan’s “A-Team” — is convincing as the poor schmoe down on his luck. His constant narration, on the other hand, is best described as annoying and totally unnecessary. When he decides to take on an eccentric billionaire as a client for one night, Stretch is placed in the crosshairs of the FBI, the terrifying henchman of a rival limo service and his former bookie. The entire experience gives him a chance to reevaluate his life and take risks he’s never dreamed of. He’s like Jim Carrey’s Fletcher Reede in “Liar Liar,” but the character’s eventual catharsis is not very satisfying. The symbolism is heavy-handed and, intentional or not, brings to mind a recurring plot device in “American Graffiti,” another tale of nightly hijinks that should probably get as far away from this movie as it can.
While Wilson gets the most screen time, it’s Chris Pine and Ed Helms who steal the show here. Pine (“Star Trek”) plays the billionaire Roger Karos, a sociopath who subsists on cocaine, whiskey and sadomasochism. Like the neo-Nazi he played in “Smokin’ Aces,” Pine truly commits to this totally ridiculous role, parachuting into the movie half naked with a beard and aviator goggles, requesting sex toys. Helms is “Karl with a K,” the perfect chauffeur who comes back from the dead to taunt Stretch. With a moustache that “he grew in Hell,” he resembles a maniacal Walt Disney, some kind of perverse spirit guide. Moreover, Helms brings along the “one night of destructive debauchery” vibe that served him well in the “Hangover” trilogy.
Ray Liotta, Norman Reedus and David Hasselhoff all have cameos as themselves with “The Hoff” getting a hilarious, unsettling tirade that covers everything from “Bay Watch” to a rather crude incident with a Viet Cong colonel. This and some creative lighting choices are some scarce highlights. Jessica Alba, James Badge Dale and Brooklyn Decker also have parts, but they’re so minimal that it’s a wonder why Carnahan hired talented names just to waste them.
At only 94 minutes, the movie is fairly short, giving it the feel of a TV episode “stretched” way beyond its running time. It’s an interesting premise rendered boring as dried paint. Instead of keeping our attention, each encounter drags on for way too long without purpose or humor to justify itself. “Stretch” can never make up its mind. It’s a comedy-action-thriller-romance with ‘80s influences for some reason (maybe the entire movie was inspired by Argyle from “Die Hard”). If a movie has an identity crisis, the audience won’t fare any better in deciphering a cohesive product among the confusion.
Overall, it was wise of Universal to deny “Stretch” a theatrical release. It may turn some kind of a profit, but it would never make hundreds of millions at the box office. Is this a problem? No, it’s just a minor dud in the interesting career of Carnahan and another fired bullet in the roulette gamble that comes with taking the digital VOD route. As the movie’s tagline so bluntly puts it, “Sh– Happens.”