Starsky & Hutch (review)

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High Schticking

Are they running out of 70s TV shows to cannibalize for the big screen yet? I blame my own peers for the seemingly endless reruns of 30-year-old primetime blown up to movie dimensions, cuz we’re nothing if not self-consciously hip consumers of recycled cheese — I’m dreading Return to Fantasy Island and Barney Miller: Back in Action. And I blame the Brady Bunch movies, for being so cool and funny and for combining the self-consciously hip with a genuine love for it source material — those movies captured not only what we loved about the Bradys back in the 70s but why we continue to love the show today. Not for nothing were theatrical groups doing staged readings of Brady episodes back in the 90s.
But honestly: Is anyone still watching S.W.A.T. or Charlie’s Angels? Is there a cult of Starksy & Hutch that I’ve been unaware of, one that had been demanding a big-screen remake?

It’s probably a good thing that there isn’t, cuz the culties would be disappointed in this new Starsky & Hutch. The only thing that’s even remotely “Starsky & Hutch” about this goofy adaptation is the red and white Ford Gran Torino. It might as well be called Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller Do Their Schtick in Funny 70s Clothes, and your enjoyment of the film depends entirely on how tired you are of seeing these two doing their regular schtick. You could theoretically combine select moments from Shanghai Knights and Along Came Polly and end up with basically the same jokes. Cuz none of their standard bits are all that different just because they’re schticking amidst waterbeds and disco balls and Snoop Dogg in pimp getups and characters dropping such au courant insults as “Sit on it!” There are also several references, required by 70s-movie law, I believe, to the Captain and Tenille and Sonny and Cher. Ah, the 70s: will we ever cease to be amused by bell bottoms and shag haircuts? Oh, wait… Owen Wilson always has a shag…

You can’t really even say there’s a story here, or hardly enough to have filled out a 47-minute episode, never mind a 90-minute movie. Something about drugs, and tribute to the idea of a plot is dispensed with rather quickly. Vince Vaughn (Made, The Cell) is pretty funny as the made-for-TV bad guy, drug dealer Reese Feldman, because he doesn’t overplay things — some of his funniest moments are so underplayed that they become little moments of comic genius, recalling Leslie Nielsen’s performance in Police Squad!, which was so low-key that it almost backed up off that end of the scale and ended up all the way around into broadness. If director Todd Phillips (Old School) had been content to let the many, many writers stick with clever, mocking-yet-loving snipes at the genre of cop shows — “Your mother was one of the finest cops Bay City has ever seen,” their captain barks at Starsky, and it takes you a moment to realize why that’s hilarious — this might have been something on a par with those deliciously 70s-riffic Brady Bunch movies.

But instead, the film relies entirely on personality… and not on the characters’ personalities but on movie-star personalities. Wilson (The Big Bounce), as the blond one, at least always manages to create the impression that his loosey-goosey, live-for-the-moment dude is an extension of his own personality, a character in whose skin he’s comfortable — we’d love to hang with him and have a beer and shoot the shit. When he shows up in Peter Fonda duds to riff on Easy Rider, Wilson’s glee is downright palpable: you get the sense, constantly, that he’s getting an enormous kick out of everything he’s doing, and it’s an infectious feeling.

Stiller (Duplex), on the other hand, as the one with the dark hair, never fails to look as miserable as he always does these days. His barely suppressed rage onscreen also seems to spring from himself, from a frustration, perhaps, that he’s been reduced to lowbrow slapstick and his now apparently de rigueur “dance of humiliation” — here, it’s under a disco ball, natch. Stiff and self-conscious, Stiller is a trial to be around. Now, this may be as much of a put-on as Wilson’s — maybe Wilson hates being there and Stiller’s the one having a ball — but his persona as the angry ineffectual is a lot harder to make work in a film like this: If Starsky is such a straight arrow that he’d ask the bad guys, sternly and with a straight face, if they have permits for their guns, he’s also the kind of guy who’d be a stickler for traffic rules, not instead a graduate of the Bo and Luke Duke School of Driving.

And why should Starsky be stepping on toes like that? Dukes of Hazzard: The Motion Picture is coming in 2005.

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