When I opined last week that Starsky and Hutch looked like it was going to be a “broad comedy centering on gay jokes and drug references,” I wasn’t wrong. What I didn’t know was quite how far the movie would take this somewhat limited approach to getting laughs — or just how genial it would be about it.
No, this is not a good movie — it’s not even a hundred miles near a good movie. But then, maybe it shouldn’t be, because the film is certainly not drawn from a good TV show. The original series debuted in 1975 — the very year that decade started becoming what we now remember it as, rather than continuing to be an extension of the ’60s — and remains part of the reason that the ’70s is not looked on as a shining era of history, or art. The show was unconscious (and unconscionable) kitsch; making a good movie out of it would be unthinkable.
Making a silly, nontaxing spoof that wallows in the show’s own absurdity was clearly the way to go; however, that tack came with the same built-in problem found in Broken Lizard’s Club Dread — spoofing something that never took itself very seriously to begin with. And as with Club Dread, no one involved figured out quite how to accomplish their goal, ending up with an engagingly silly Starsky (Ben Stiller) and Hutch (Owen Wilson) plodding through a story line that isn’t a whole lot different than you’d find on any generic cop show.
Why didn’t co-writer/director Todd Phillips and his four — count ’em, four — fellow writers instead take a closer look at Zoolander, where the plot was as absurd as the characters played by Stiller and Wilson? (They certainly took a peek at Zoolander, since Starsky and Hutch‘s disco dance-off is obviously patterned on the much funnier catwalk duel in the earlier film.) Who knows?
As it stands, the film they’ve handed us relies entirely on its ability to coast by in a marginally acceptable fashion based on nothing more than the personality of its stars — and the engaging non-acting of Snoop Dogg. In fact, Starsky and Hutch is rewritten for Stiller and Wilson by having the original characters undergo a role reversal. Starsky is supposed to be the wise-ass rule bender and Hutch his more uptight partner, but that would have been at odds with the two main actors’ established screen personas; thus the characters merely traded characteristics.
Otherwise, this is a by-the-numbers cops ‘n’ drug lords story that plays a little too much like the real thing — so much so, in fact, that one wonders why they bothered casting Vince Vaughn in what is finally nothing more than a stock bad-guy role. Apart from Vaughn’s very occasional reactions to Stiller and Wilson’s sub-Clouseau ineptitude and the kinkier remarks he receives from henchman Big Earl (Will Ferrell), Vaughn is given nothing even mildly amusing in the entire film. He’s just the bad guy — period.
Speaking of periods: It’s hard to overlook the fact that Starsky and Hutch never feels like the real thing. For all its barrage of ’70s music — the creme de la creme of the decade’s lesser accomplishments — song selections are often inappropriate, with some of them hardly new at the time the movie is supposed to be taking place. And that’s not to mention that the writers also don’t have a very good handle on ’70s slang.
Starsky and Hutch comes across as if its characters knew that 30 years later they’d be in a movie about themselves. In other words, the whole thing’s something of a mess — but it’s a good-humored one, insubtantially entertaining without ever being wildly funny.
But at least one aspect of the film is interesting, since Starsky and Hutch makes the unapologetic leap from the world of buddy-bonding to outright homo-eroticism. This, of course, has been a subtextual element with comedy teams from Laurel and Hardy to Bing and Bob, from Martin and Lewis to Jay and Silent Bob. However, Starsky and Hutch takes it completely out of the closet, so to speak — and it does so without the usual undercurrent of condescension or bashing.
That’s an accomplishment of some note, as is the film’s opening a scene with the duo posing as a pair of mimes, while the soundtrack song “Send in the Clowns” proclaims, “Isn’t it strange? Isn’t it queer?” without ever even hinting at offensiveness or mean-spiritedness.
Too bad it’s not in a better movie.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke