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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Hit & Run' mixes seriousness, comedy and cars

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This film image released by Open Road Films shows, Kristen Bell, left, and Dax Shepard in a scene from "Hit and Run." (AP Photo/Open Road Films, Jeffrey Reed)

HIT & RUN (R)

4 stars out of 4

Up until now, former stand-up comedian Dax Shepard has been regarded within industry circles as a below B-grade, poor man's Zach Braff. He bounces back and forth between so-so TV ("Parenthood," "King of the Hill") and really bad movies ("When in Rome," "Employee of the Month," "Idiocracy") while not being all that impressive at either.

With "Hit & Run" Shepard dons three hats (screenwriter, co-director, leading man), girds his loins, gets dangerous and throws all caution to the wind. A mash-up of romantic comedy and muscle car road flick, "Hit & Run" will be a direct hit or wide miss with both audiences and critics and is the kind of movie with little middle ground. You'll either love it or hate it.

Within the first 15 minutes, it becomes clear that Shepard put a great deal of care into the screenplay. The back story of all of the characters is parceled out in tiny increments throughout the length of the movie and Shepard uses tiny brush strokes with all of the details. There's nothing broad or lowbrow about it, yet it can be appreciated by both couch potatoes and movie snobs.

The opening scene features Charlie (Shepard) softly soothing the nerves of girlfriend Annie (Shepard's fiancee, Kristen Bell) who believes she's about to lose her job as a teacher at a lower-rung junior college in northern California. Annie's boss Debbie (Kristin Chenoweth -- spewing profanity like a longshoreman) doesn't fire her but tells her if she doesn't take an interview for a much-better job in far away L.A., she will indeed get canned.

What starts out as great news becomes an almost divisive wedge between Charlie and Annie. Reminding Annie he can't relocate, he uncharacteristically gets selfish on her, pouts like an 8-year-old but eventually gets his priorities in order and off to La-la land they go.

Exactly why Charlie can't leave is addressed early on but revealing that here wouldn't be fair. He's yet to tell Annie that his real name isn't Charlie and is sure if she knew everything about his past she'd leave him in a nanosecond. He's so in love with her he's willing to get her to L.A. knowing full well he'll have to return home without her.

Showing up in almost every scene either as a couple or with others, Shepard and Bell's characters are augmented by a half-dozen supporting players that all squarely hit their marks.

Tom Arnold plays a law enforcement officer of some sort prone to unintended self-destruction. As mentioned, Chenoweth is priceless while going way against her typical goody-two-shoes type. As Annie's ex-boyfriend Gil, Michael Rosenbaum ("Smallville") is a sniveling weasel who calls upon his gay state patrol brother Terry (Jess Rowland) to find some reason to arrest Charlie. A barely recognizable, dreadlocked Bradley Cooper shows up late as a most imposing villain bent on revenge. Cooper hasn't played a character this loathsome and menacing since "Wedding Crashers" and a scene with him and the owner of a Rottweiler is equally uproarious and unnerving. It's a prime example of Shepard's ability to mix the comic with the serious, often at the same time, an approach reflected in the pace and narrative flow by co-director David Palmer.

With a resume consisting mostly of short films and documentaries, Palmer never lets a scene go on too long but neither does he rush anything. Scenes of heft and those containing meaningless but hysterical Tarantino-flavored small talk are given equal weight. The movies' 100 minute-running time goes by in a flash. The last half of the third act finds Shepard calling on a handful of big-name, higher-profile friends to take on brief but integral bit parts that add even more texture and flavor.

"Hit & Run" is a make-or-break movie for Shepard and is reminiscent in many ways to another former stand-up comic with a lousy acting track record: Bobcat Goldthwait. Unlike Goldthwait, Shepard is still young enough to find plenty of work as an actor in throwaway, lightweight roles. They pay the bills but are artistically bereft. A movie like "Hit & Run" might not make Shepard quite as financially flush, but it instantly establishes him as a serious player and something more than a stooge-for-hire. (Open Road)