Much of Hit and Run (Open Road, 8.22) is a very cleverly written, refreshingly original, angular-attitude comedy that reminded me (in the early stages, at least, and in portions throughout) of David O. Russell‘s Flirting With Disaster (’96), and that is high praise indeed. That classic comedy had inspired character flavor, unusual detours and flaky oddball dialogue, and so does Hit and Run. And while this stuff was happening during last night’s premiere screening, I was delighted.

The story is basically about a former getaway driver for bank robbers (Dax Shepard) whose easy backwater life under the Witness Protection Program with a classy educated girlfriend (Kristin Bell) is thrown into chaos when his past catches up with him. Boil it all down and it’s a premise for a car-chase comedy, for the most part. There are two or three high-speed, burning-rubber scenes that are passable but nothing special. But the character stuff, particularly the intimate give-and-take between Shepard and Bell, is rooted and intelligent and genuinely funny.

Credit goes to Shepard, who wrote the screenplay, but also, I’ve read, to longtime g.f. and fiance Bell, who contributed to the flavor and undercurrent of this material.

And not just the Shepard-Bell scenes but several others. Hit and Run is off on its own road — at times it hums with unusual, off-tempo hilarity. There’s a completely brilliant scene in which Bradley Cooper, playing a hyper, white-rasta blue-collar sociopath, gets into an initially polite dispute with a tall, pissed-off black guy in a supermarket checkout lane about the quality of dog food. (Trust me, it’s a great scene, and ten times funnier than anything Cooper did in either of the two Hangover films.) Costars Tom Arnold. Michael Rosenbaum, Beau Bridges, David Koechner and some red-haired guy who plays a highway patrolman (I’ll eventually find his name) also deliver cool bits and crafty humor. Hit and Run is not your alcoholic brother-in-law’s dumbass comedy.

But Shepard, who also co-directed (with David Palmer) and produced, must also accept blame for the generic car-chase elements and all the super-crazy-ass, muscle-car shit… squealing tires, clouds of smoke, “aggghh!” It’s been done for decades, this stuff. Steve McQueen and Peter Yates got the ball rolling 44 years ago with a landmark car chase in Bullitt (’68), John Frankenheimer upped the ante in Ronin and Quentin Tarantino added lore with some lively back-country road thrills in Death Proof (’07). But there’s nothing new to put on the table.

So how could Shepard have created such a genuinely inventive, unusually well-written relationship comedy on one hand, and at the same time an almost dreary Fast and the Furious thing for yokels?

The burning rubber stuff was inserted for two reasons: (a) Submental males really like fast cars and (b) Shepard is a car and motorcycle freak who sees himself on a certain level as an inheritor of the Steve McQueen mantle. No, I say — he is an inheritor, if he wants to develop his talent, fo the mantle of Billy Wilder, David O. Russell, I.A.L. Diamond, Garson Kanin, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Arthur Richman, the original author of The Awful Truth. He and Bell should step up and write relationship comedies and dramas.

Generally Hit and Run is a major career uptick for Shepard, who before this point had mainly irritated me, to be honest. I found his performance as a none-too-bright L.A. hipster in The Freebie especially irksome, and I hate that grotesque tree tattoo he has on his upper right-arm and shoulder, and particularly those little red leaves or flowers that resemble an outbreak of measles or small pox. But now he’s okay. Now I respect him.

There are currently two Rotten Tomatoes reader reactions to Hit and Run that I find infuriating. A guy named Adam Foidart says “it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a crazy madcap comedy or lean more towards the dramatic implications…and balance it out with some laughs.” Wrong — this mixture is precisely what makes Hit and Run feel original and satisfying. Films that work only with primary colors are almost always oppressive and obvious. I have the same response to Chris Lee‘s remark that Hit and Run “can’t decide if it wants to be a romantic comedy or an outrageous comedy.” No, dumbass — the best comedies always mix it up.