Sometimes you want a movie to show you things you’ve never seen, sometimes you want a movie to test your boundaries… and sometimes you want a movie you can relax with.  The third of the aforementioned categories doesn’t make special demands or offers serious-minded challenges.  Instead, it’s like a hang-out session with a good buddy at a favored haunt.  In an era of Hollywood filmmaking where every release has to be a smash hit on opening weekend, it’s rare to see movies of this kind at the multiplex.

Thus, the release of Hit And Run at the multiplexes this year was a pleasant surprise.  It’s a lot of things – road movie, a chase film and an ensemble comedy – yet it does them all in a low-key, intimate way that is the antithesis of so much current multiplex fare.  The core of the story is the relationship between academian Annie (Kristen Bell) and Charlie (Dax Shepard), a guy who keeps a low profile because he’s in the witness protection program.  However, when she gets her dream job offer at an L.A.-based college, Charlie makes the decision to sacrifice his anonymity for her happiness.

That decision spawns an array of troubles for both Annie and Charlie.  For starters, Charlie has to dodge Randy (Tom Arnold), the agent guarding him for witness protection.  The other troubles stem from the fact that Charlie hasn’t been honest about why he’s in witness protection: he told her he witnessed a crime but he was actually part of that crime.  Annie’s ex-boyfriend Gil (Michael Rosenbaum) stumbles across that info and decides to chase them.  There’s also the matter of Charlie’s old partner-in-crime, Alex (Bradley Cooper), who did a stretch in prison because of Charlie’s testimony and is eager for a reunion.

That might sound like the set-up for a frenetic chase movie but the big surprise with Hit And Run is how mellow it is.  Shepard, who wrote and co-directed with David Palmer, isn’t afraid to have a lot of moving parts in his storyline but never rushes things.  He finds a nice, breezy rhythm between plot, action and banter that deepens the characterizations.  As a result, the film often feels like a sunny throwback to the kind of quirky, cheerfully gabby crime-comedies that came out in the wake of Pulp Fiction (that said, Shepard thankfully avoids the temptation to go overboard with the pop culture references or ultra-violence).

The film’s gentle style plays well because Shepard has tapped an array of skilled actor friends to flesh out the cast.  Arnold is given an oddly vulnerable, delicate variation on the usual cop role and he invests it with the right amount of nervous energy while Cooper brings a low-key vibe to his crook role that lends it an interesting shading.  Rosenblum has more of a traditional role as the jerky ex but the script never lapses into making him a cartoon villain (he’s not an evil guy, just a misguided jerk) and he invests it with an uptight energy that makes him an interesting, high-key contrast to Shepard’s underplayed charm.  The film’s biggest scene stealer may be Kristin Chenoweth as Annie’s boss: this character has a habit of revealing embarrassing elements of her past with alarming casualness and Chenoweth deadpans her way effectively through each.

However, the heart of the film lies in the relationship between Annie and Charlie.  Real-life sweethearts Bell and Shepard don’t have a hard time convincing as the mismatched lovebirds: she brings a mouthy yet sweet-natured energy to her role while he’s got an unassuming quality that charms the viewer into laughs. That said, they don’t use that as an excuse to avoid giving real performances.  One of the strongest elements of Hit And Run as a story is that it allows conflict to build between the two as the story progresses: he wants to be able to leave the past behind but she needs to know it first to get past it.  There are a few effective, purely dramatic scenes near the end where each side of the relationship gets  a chance to pour its heart out to the other – and both actors handle these moments in a disarmingly heartfelt manner.

In short, Hit And Run is an amiable diversion, the kind of film that will do well on home video because its small-scale charms make it perfect for watching on t.v.  It has a genuine, unforced charm and does a lot of things well in its own modest way.