Starsky & Hutch: a disco dud.

Reviews of the latest films.
March 4 2004 7:16 PM

Disco Dud

On the beat with Starsky & Hutch.

A weaker version than the small screen's
A weaker version than the small screen's

The original '70s cop series Starsky & Hutch wasn't a great show, but it had a fun vibe. Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) was a Jewish wiseass hero in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and Elliott Gould: He used his smarts and chutzpah to say and do things that the WASP straights—among them his by-the-book partner, Hutch (David Soul)—couldn't; and he was a natural ally for his "ghetto snitch," Huggy Bear. (After all, blacks and Jews had come through the civil rights movement together—not to mention having collaborated on many blaxploitation classics.) Apart from its overall blandness, the saddest thing for me about the new, big-budget Starsky & Hutch (Warner Bros.) is that, a quarter of a century later, Starsky has become an anal-retentive neoconservative (the half-Jewish Ben Stiller) who can't even begin to get on his Huggy's wavelength. Forget Mel Gibson, this is the year's biggest bummer for the Jews: that their biggest box-office champ, apart from Jesus, is the image of angry impotence.

The ubiquitous stars, Stiller and Owen Wilson, have a moderately tricky shtick together. Stiller is the glowering nebbish—wiry, righteous, and quick to perceive injury. Wilson is a rangy, golden-haired surfer-dude, sleazy and opportunistic but so lazily good-natured that you can't really resent him. (And you can't help thinking that anyone whose nose goes in that many different directions must have a sense of humor about his good looks.) The tall, blond WASP pretends to soothe and placate the little Jewish guy while he actually makes him madder, driving him to ever more ridiculous lengths to assert his potency. It's while Stiller is in one of these useless rages that Wilson establishes a rapport with his audience: He gives a little shrug that says, "What are you gonna do with this guy?" In that instant, he could seduce anyone.

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The idea to cast Stiller and Wilson in a big-screen adaptation of Starsky & Hutch might be the funniest thing about Starsky & Hutch, and whatever works in the movie is right there in the coming attraction: the stars themselves, the scary '70s perms, the high heels, the wide-lapelled leisure suits, the preening cop-show poses, the wacka-wacka music. The film, directed by the mild, almost apologetic young comedy writer Todd Phillips (Old School), is like the TV series merged with the Mad Magazine parody of the TV series.

Unfortunately, Starsky & Hutch tries to be a semi-straight cop movie, too, with shoot-outs and chases and people getting shot at point-blank range by the drug kingpin played by Vince Vaughn. And so the elements cancel one another out: There are no comic highs, as in a Mike Myers parody, but no action highs, either. There's no romance—just a jokey flirtation with a pair of accommodating cheerleaders (Carmen Electra and Amy Smart). Apart from some zoom lenses, director Phillips doesn't even do much to parody '70s filmmaking styles. The target audience isn't the people who lived through that twisted decade but the people whose idea of nostalgia is the first season of That '70s Show.

Stiller does cut a remarkable figure: He looks like Glaser with the proportions screwed up: the head and torso swollen, the neck reduced to a suggestion, and the legs slightly bowed. His "I'm a cool dude" walk is a showstopper, especially with Wilson's Hutch sauntering unassumingly behind him. The movie's Hutch is a man with no principles, to the point where he's been robbing Chinese laundries to pay his debts. He and Starsky are brought together as punishment by their captain (Fred "The Hammer" Williamson), and from their first scene, it's clear that this isn't a parody of a mismatched buddy-cop flick but the tedious real thing. The pair begin with macho taunts, then slip into childish name-calling and, finally, infantile touching and slapping. And that's the whole movie: action stances followed by deflating jokes, so that these tough guys look like third-grade wussies (or comedians).

It might work if Phillips' timing weren't so limp and if scenes had boffo payoffs. But the ideas are better than the delivery; I laughed more thinking back over the gags than I did watching them. A cameo by Will Ferrell—who, along with Jack Black, provided the most memorable moment in this year's Oscar ceremonies—is one queer-bashing joke played over and over to diminishing returns; and Phillips forgot to give Juliette Lewis, still likably skanky after all these years, any punch lines. Only Snoop Dogg's Huggy Bear burns through the movie's bland corporate tone. The 6-foot-3 hip-hop MC isn't a huggy-bear at all: He plays it hard-edged and slightly threatening, as if he doesn't care how people dressed and acted in the '70s. He's not going to emasculate himself like Ben Stiller, and so he's twice as funny. He has chutzpah.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.