Right On

'Starsky & Hutch' is a campy riot of retro cool, a warm and fuzzy ode to the '70s buddy cops.

March 05, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Ben Stiller as Detective David Starsky has the scowling, close-to-the-ground focus of an obsessed rat terrier. Owen Wilson as Detective Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson has the laid-back sunniness of those surfing turtles in Finding Nemo. In Starsky & Hutch, a comic remake of the hit 1975-1979 cop series (set, once again, in the fictional Bay City, Calif.), they generate an always humorous, sometimes hilarious chemistry.

They're constantly ahead of or behind each other and taking shortcuts or backpedaling to stay even. Starsky can't keep partners (he's too fastidious); Hutch could care less about his. So Capt. Dobey (Fred Williamson) decides they deserve each other - and by the end they think so, too. That's why the movie remains appealing long after its plot fizzles out.

Starsky & Hutch never loses sight of two strange ducks in harness yet somehow oblivious to one another - the dedicated Starsky because he's fixated on minutia and the opportunistic Hutch because he's looking for a chance to score money, sex or maybe a career-making arrest. Director Todd Phillips (Old School, Road Trip) drops these jokers down in an environment so blunt and tacky it's as if he brought the TV show's props, designs and costumes out of storage and gave them a new layer of shellac.

The elements in every frame look as mismatched as the title team. That's true to the chaotic spirit of the mid-'70s, when people were still assimilating the counterculture, Watergate and Vietnam while retreating into disco, jogging and the various accoutrements of the Me Decade. (Starsky is intensely proud of his red and white Ford Gran Torino.) The slim storyline centers on a businessman-turned-drug kingpin (Vince Vaughn) pitching what he uproariously calls "new coke" - like the aborted New Coke soft drink, it's like classic coke, only sweeter. The startling joke is that this new coke is impervious to drug-sniffing dogs.

This movie's comedy muse is in the details: from Vaughn's repulsive Fu Manchu moustache to the way he operates like a cut-rate Bugsy, trying to keep on top of his drug deal and his daughter's bat mitzvah. The script (credited to John O'Brien, Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong) is at its best in odd turns and verbal toss-offs. At one point, Vaughn praises his mistress (Juliette Lewis) by calling her "my girlfriend on the side." And the writers give Stiller and Wilson a series of sketches that lets them strike spluttery sparks. They don Easy Rider duds and impersonate Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to intimidate a heavy at a biker bar. They enact bizarre lewd poses in exchange for the cooperation of an imprisoned drug-ring henchman played with antic obsessiveness by Will Ferrell.

Phillips may be an inelegant filmmaker, but he knows how to keep a comedy popping: he understands that if your two stars create an atmosphere that's just dumb funny, interjecting genuine wit can provide a doubly welcome jolt of intelligence.

Snoop Dogg brings a new street pomp to the character of the pair's key informant, Huggy Bear. Though his material is variable, his cocktail-bar court, Huggy's Place, provides the scene for a sidesplitting Dada-esque discourse on the government of Luxembourg. Starsky and Hutch top that with their discussion of the meaning of "irony" in the biker bar.

The small roles have been cast with an eye for sight gags and an ear for pop-cultural resonance, including blaxploitation star Williamson as the detectives' boss and Carmen Electra and Amy Smart as pro cheerleaders who find our heroes cute. When Wilson's Hutch croons the same song for these women that the original Hutch, David Soul, turned into a pop hit ("Don't Give Up On Us"), Stiller's Starsky only has eyes for his partner. He even sees a cartoon bluebird of happiness flying around Hutch's head.

Of course, each is a narcissist. What's wildly comedic is how they come to respect each oth- er's narcissism, especially dur- ing a romp on the beach that recalls the excesses of the TV show, romantic montages from '70s chick flicks, and Steve Martin and David Letterman's gay-lover parody on Late Night.

At times, Starsky and Hutch are like a live-action version of Saturday Night Live's animated "Ambiguously Gay Duo" - and Williamson's captain does some choice slow burns at their camp affectations. The suggestiveness is sweet as well as funny. By the end, these two star Me's of the Me Decade have committed (as cop partners, anyway) to becoming an Us.

Starsky & Hutch

Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Snoop Dogg

Directed by Todd Phillips

Rated PG-13

Released by: Warner Bros.

Time 97 minutes

Sun Score ***

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