YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


'Starsky & Hutch' a bell-bottom bore

March 05, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Aside from their tight jeans and hot wheels, the 1970s television team of "Starsky & Hutch" always seemed hopelessly dorky to me. Maybe it was their dry look (or those tight jeans), but David Soul (as Hutch) and Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky) didn't come off as any more exciting, authentic or watchable than producer Aaron Spelling's distaff detectives on "Charlie's Angels." Next to Jim Rockford, who was trolling for trouble on SoCal's mean sun-soaked streets at the same time, these blow-dried hair models looked like a joke.

They still do, though not in a funny ha-ha kind of way, but in a vaguely lobotomized kind of way. In the new movie based on the old series, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson star as the titular couple, homicide detectives working in the fictional Bay City. Uptight (um, maybe it's the jeans?), Starsky plays by the rules but seems as dumb as a post. Loosey-goosey Hutch, in contrast, plays by no evident rules and seems somewhat sharper than his future partner-in-arms. Brought together by their exasperated captain (Fred "the Hammer" Williamson), they reluctantly join forces, whereupon they discover a dead body, uncover a drug deal, check out the chicks and swap cheap patter with their chief informant (Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear).

Those of us who survived bad shags and bell-bottoms may be surprised to learn we grew up in a Golden Age. The most persuasive case for this gilded epoch (and I say this as a survivor) rests with movies and music, notwithstanding "Love Story" and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But what's striking about the current and apparently unending 1970s rage is the selective memory of its cultists, who tend to put the era's more obviously kitsch relics through their nostalgia spin cycle. Taking their cue from Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," which in turn took its cue from Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas," directors of such flashback movies as "Blow," "Wonderland" (set in 1981) and "Starsky & Hutch" trot out leisure suits, disco shirts and mounds of cocaine hoping for laughs and instant atmosphere.

Of course neither Scorsese nor Anderson built their movies on 1970s fetishism or trashy old television shows, but on characters, a sense of time, a sense of place and ideas. (Then there's the not unimportant matter of their talent.) Phillips and his co-writers John O'Brien and Scot Armstrong apparently don't have any ideas and so build their movie on jokes about "new" Coke and the image of Huggy Bear wearing a kaleidoscopic fur coat that makes him look like a road-show refugee from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Such lazy-boy nostalgia for the dregs of an era wears thin fast. Worse, unlike director Betty Thomas, who brought out the inherent surrealism of "The Brady Bunch" with manifest goodwill, Phillips and his crew don't even seem to like the era they're poaching.

Although bereft of ideas, Phillips isn't without talent, no matter how cheap his jokes and setups. As in his last comedy, "Old School," the director's biggest triumph is that he stays out of the way of Will Ferrell, whose cameo is the funniest thing in "Starsky & Hutch" and suggests that one of these days the funnyman will make an excellent movie villain. Phillips does less well by his two stars, especially Stiller, whose signature intensity here feels leaden, almost grim. Stiller's is the more difficult role, in part because he isn't playing the "cute" one and seems hellbent on making sure everyone notices him anyway. In contrast to Wilson, whose attention to the material and commitment to character recall a Rat Pack-era Dean Martin, Stiller is working too hard for such diminished returns.

A few weeks ago, Stiller turned in a pitch-perfect performance on Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" playing a version of himself (or at least his public persona), a role that allowed him to do what he does best -- be funny and smart, and without a whiff of condescension. Wilson and Stiller can be hugely appealing performers and their light-and-dark dynamic has worked well in such different films as "Permanent Midnight" and "Zoolander." If the latter, a sketch of an idea blown up to feature proportions, worked as well as it did, it's because the two gave themselves over completely to their characters. But because no one involved with "Starsky & Hutch" actually seems to care about the movie, all Wilson can do is idle in neutral while Stiller frantically shifts gears, looking for an excuse to split.


'Starsky & Hutch'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for drug content, sexual situations, partial nudity, language and some violence

Times guidelines: Think "dirty" PG-13.

Ben Stiller...David Starsky

Owen Wilson...Ken Hutchinson

Vince Vaughn...Reese Feldman

Juliette Lewis...Kitty

Snoop Dogg...Huggy Bear

Warner Bros. Pictures and Dimension Films present a Riche-Ludwig/Weed Road/Red Hour production, released by Warner Bros. Director Todd Phillips. Writers John O'Brien, Todd Phillips, Scot Armstrong. Story by Stevie Long, John O'Brien. Based on characters created by William Blinn. Producers William Blinn, Stuart Cornfeld, Akiva Goldsman, Tony Ludwig, Alan Riche. Director of photography Barry Peterson. Production designer Edward Verreaux. Editor Leslie Jones. Music Theodore Shapiro. Costumes Louise Mingenbach. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

In general release.

Los Angeles Times Articles