Starsky & Hutch
March 2nd, 2004
While it isn't the force of nature comedy that "Old School" was, Todd Phillips' 70s cop show tribute, "Starsky and Hutch," is just as entertaining. Lovingly crafted and mercifully devoid of self-referential shtick, "Starsky" benefits from an ace comedic cast and Phillip's sometimes-a-little-too-convincing direction. This is sure to be one of the best comedies of the year.
It’s the 1970s, and Bay City is about to be deluged with “new coke,” a powerful new strain of undetectable cocaine that evil mastermind Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn) is ready to sell to the highest bidder. On his trail are devoted cops, David Starsky (Ben Stiller), and his laconic partner, Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Owen Wilson). Two mismatched detectives who don’t get along, Starsky and Hutch try to find a middle ground in dealing with each other’s work ethic so they can bring Feldman to justice. Armed with their trusty informant, Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg, playing very Snoop-like), the team attempts to infiltrate Feldman’s world, using clues, witnesses (Will Ferrell, Carmen Electra, and Amy Smart), dance contests, and the sheer power of their skills to stop the shipments of this dangerous cocaine (which tastes like coffee sweetener) from ever hitting their beloved city.
One of many things to celebrate in the film version of the 1970s television show, “Starsky & Hutch,” is that this is not an ugly parody. Sure, the era gets ribbed exhaustively (cocaine, discos, permed hair), along with the timeless standards of the show (Starsky’s collar-always-up jackets, ludicrous car and people stunts), but director Todd Phillips never nurtures mean-spiritedness, and generally avoids explicitly pointing the jokes out. Parody is easy and artistically economical (“Down with Love,” and the atrocious “Lost Skeleton of Cadavra”), and while “Hutch” is a comedy, Phillips has made the choice to form a full-fledged tribute to the legendary show rather than simply making fun of it. And his film is a blast of comedy and cop-show-love that makes it one of the better pictures of the still-youthful year.
Fans of the television series are bound to get more out of “Hutch” than the casual viewer. Icons like Huggy Bear, the thunderous Ford Torino, and Hutch’s thick head of hair are not the stuff on the cultural radar these days. Phillips plays off that well, turning his “Hutch” into as much of a comedy as it is an episode of the show. Of course, the elements are heightened for the comedic twists (you gotta love how those clues keep falling into their laps), but armed with zooms, a funky soundtrack, and that striped tomato, and Phillips has come dangerously close to resurrecting the actual texture of the show, which silences the instances of direct lampoon that the film sporadically aims for.
In what marks their 6th time working together, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson already have a proven chemistry that can’t be beat. “Hutch” benefits from the easygoing interplay of the two leads, as well as their remarkable resemblance to their television counterparts, Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. After schlubbing through endless comedies recently (all which have been funny to a certain degree), it’s great to see Stiller in a more confident role. Playing the helplessly idealistic cop Starsky, Stiller has fun with the fashions and the hair of the character, and plays new comedic ideas perfectly, including the character’s embarrassment at being the son of Bay City’s most celebrated cop: his mother.
Stiller interacts effortlessly with Wilson’s already worn out “no worries” acting routine, but it’s clear that armed with a great script, Wilson can be something more than repetitive and obnoxious. Emphasizing Hutch’s sexual prowess, along with his singing (he performs David Soul’s 1977 hit, “Don’t Give Up On Us Baby”), Wilson fits snuggly with the role. And what more can be said of Vince Vaughn? Perfectly cast as the bad guy, Vaughn’s ability to be both oily and hilarious is used to perfection in “Hutch.” He’s a film highlight who doesn’t get the spotlight, but steals every scene he’s in.
For those fans expecting another “Old School” level of comedy, “Hutch” might come as a slight disappointment. While there are fields of jokes as far as the eye can see, “Hutch” isn’t a barn-burner like “Old School,” or even Phillips’s other comedy creation, “Road Trip.” The new film is more big-time entertainment (at more than double the budget of “Old School”), and leaps less when it comes to diving for the big gags. There’s no doubt that “Hutch” contains some of the biggest laughs you’re likely to find all year, including classic material such as the two cops fending off a knife attack brought on by a 12-year-old boy, and the return of Dan Finnerty and his Dan Band as lascivious bat mitzvah entertainment. But “Hutch” isn’t the quite the comedyfree-for-all that “Old School” was, which might disappoint the younger crowd.
Todd Phillips has become one of the leading young comedic directors of late with his sensational timing and clarity of style, and “Hutch” continues his steamrolling success even when faced with a suffocating budget and huge stars to contend with. “Hutch” may not be as wet-the-pants funny as Phillips’s earlier films, but it triumphs where it counts the most: laughs and source material love, and never degrades into a self-referential muddle. That’s an enviable achievement.
My rating: A