An uptight, by-the-book cop is partnered with an impulsive maverick. Sound familiar? If so, much of the rest of Starsky and Hutch will as well. Off-screen pals Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson appear together for the sixth time as Bay City Detectives Dave Starsky and Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson in a comedic re-imagining of the once-popular but little-esteemed 1975-79 TV show. Director Todd Phillips, best known for Road Trip and Old School, paces the film well, and there’s enough action and T&A to keep viewers occupied, but ultimately the film is neither funny enough as a comedy nor involving enough as a police caper.
It opens promisingly, though. Vince Vaughn plays Reese Feldman, an amoral drug dealer with a lot of cocaine to unload, cocaine which has been genetically engineered to have no scent and thus be undetectable by police dogs. Stiller’s Starsky is then introduced, an overzealous, hapless nudnik, shown chasing down a criminal at great personal risk and property damage to recover a stolen purse containing $7. When we first see Wilson’s Hutch, he and his associates are holding up a bookie, something he does regularly to supplement his meager salary. Caught by his fellow officers, Wilson claims he’s operating undercover.
Their boss is Captain Doby, played by Fred Williamson, star of Black Caesar and other ’70s Blacksploitation films. Williamson doesn’t have much to work with, as his character is exactly like every police captain in every other movie ever made about maverick detectives. Doby assigns these two incorrigible officers to work together, hoping that their opposing inclinations will serve to temper both, which, soon and predictably enough, they do. Stiller and Wilson have undeniable chemistry, which can serve them well but undercuts the tension that’s supposed to exist in their early scenes together. There’s never any doubt that these two opposites will inevitably prove to be simpatico.
The supporting cast is well chosen, including Vaughn as the drug lord and an almost-unrecognizable Jason Bateman as his flunky. The appealing Juliet Lewis is underused, though, as Vaughn’s gun moll. Will Ferrell’s Big Earl gets about as much screen time, but that’s for the best. A few minutes of this character is amusing, but a little goes a long way. The limited exposure is perhaps the only thing preventing him from becoming an offensive stereotype.
The real standout in the supporting cast is Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear. Snoop steals every scene he’s in and is missed when he’s gone for long stretches. Pimped out in the most outrageous ’70s regalia, Huggy Bear rises above the stereotype and proves to be the most rational and intelligent character in the movie, with the possible exception of the two unexpectedly well-read thugs who provide his muscle. Snoop is incredibly well-cast, and the character is made interesting enough to merit his own film.
Starsky and Hutch has recreated its ’70s trappings down to the last detail. While the fashions are sometimes laughable, they aren’t exaggerated as in other ’70s remakes, such as The Brady Bunch Movie. In fact, the leads’ costumes tend to be exact re-creations of fashions worn by the original stars. Another re-creation, Starsky’s shiny red-and-white Ford Torino, is perhaps the least inconspicuous car possible for tailing suspects, but it’s such a sweet ride that the implausibility is forgiven. The “striped tomato,” as it was known in the original series, is a thing of beauty, and Starsky’s stunt driving gives the earliest hint that he might be cool after all.
The filmmakers set out to make an unusually gentle spoof, which is a shame given how rich the raw material is. There are few big laughs, and some promising scenes fall flat. The dance-off between Starsky and “Dancin’ Rick” immediately calls to mind the walk-off between Stiller and Wilson in Zoolander, but the payoff is curiously flat. The scene that could have brought the biggest laugh, in which Starsky is mistaken about what’s behind the garage door at a bat mitzvah, is undercut by its overexposure in the film’s trailer.
Several plot threads are introduced only to be forgotten. When it’s established early on that the cocaine has no smell and a sweetish taste, it would appear to be a significant point. As it turns out, it’s only the setup for a belabored joke about the cops mistaking the cocaine for artificial sweetener, with predictable results. In another missed opportunity, the investigation is turned over to Chris Penn’s bullheaded Officer Manetti, only to have no follow-through, as there’s never a scene in which he’s shown working the case.
The filmmakers also seem to have a tenuous notion of their audience. The typical viewer of a Stiller/Wilson comedy is a bit young to catch many of the inside jokes. Having Wilson serenade his and Stiller’s dates with “Don’t Give Up On Us, Baby,” a #1 hit for the original Hutch, David Soul, is a clever touch, but a bit obscure for most of the 14- to 24-year-olds in the audience. Another scene, in which the two costume themselves as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters from Easy Rider, elicited no audible response from the young audience I saw the film with. It’s also likely few of them got the joke of the Dirty Harry poster hanging in Starsky’s home, an almost subliminal reminder of the film that helped inspire the style of the original series.
It’s worth noting how the personalities of the two leads have been reconfigured from the original conceptions. Paul Michael Glaser’s Starsky was streetwise and brash, while David Soul’s Hutch was the literary, sophisticated type. If the filmmakers had embraced those characters rather than letting Stiller and Wilson play their usual screen personas, this would have been a funnier and less predictable film.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()