Maybe the most amazing thing about the big-screen version of Starsky & Hutch is how much smaller it feels than its predecessor, the William Blinn-created, Aaron Spelling-produced cop series that ran on ABC from 1975 to '79. Everything about this cineplex variation feels rinky-dink, like some extended variety-show skit that became a network pilot that accidentally morphed into a feature film when no one was paying attention; it lacks only a laugh track, commercial breaks and a musical guest. And never mind what the movie's about; it has no more narrative than The Passion of the Christ. Director Todd Phillips, who remade Animal House and called it Old School, has put new clothes on a Naked Gun and shoved it behind the wheel of a familiar red, white-striped 1975 Ford Gran Torino. To top it off, he has cast the bong-hit generation's Hope and Crosby: Ben Stiller as square, starchy Dave Starsky and Owen Wilson as happenin', coke-snorting Ken Hutchinson, who never met a broad gag they couldn't choke down.
The Starsky & Hutch fetishist, or at least the 36-year-old guy anxiously awaiting the first-season DVD boxed set with commentary from the original cast, will take issue with the movie's reversal of roles. Hutch was the uptight stickler for rules, not Starsky; Starsky, reckless (or is that wreck-less?) driver of the Striped Tomato, was the hipster, not Hutch. But Phillips and the handful of writers credited with story and screenplay have no interest in fidelity to the original show, aside from the names of a few characters, and why should they? No one fondly recalls old episodes of the show; this isn't Star Trek.
All that's recalled is the series' faded groovy vibe -- grown men in bulky turtlenecks and caterpillar sideburns sliding over car hoods and bickering like a married couple, stopping occasionally for chitchats with an expatriate from a blaxploitation triple bill. It's what the Beastie Boys appropriated for their brilliant "Sabotage" video, which worked because it was a mere three minutes of fake mustaches, and that's all Phillips is interested in -- the camp appeal, like a kid on summer vacation. We're expected to laugh as much at the fashion and hair styles as at the dialogue and action. Even the soundtrack of Barry Manilow songs and "Afternoon Delight" work harder for a laugh than anyone actually in the film.
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But this isn't really a movie, just a succession of scenes that begin because the last one had to end, well, sometime. In some scenes, Stiller and Wilson are playing cops named Starsky and Hutch; in others, they're in wigs and mustaches playing Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider; in others still, they're sporting Miami retiree and Texas tycoon get-ups doing shtick. Stiller's also refining his worn-out Tom Cruise impersonation: Starsky has Mommy Issues, trying to be the cop his mom was and he'll never be, but his variation is less Top Gun than Hot Shots, a parody of a parody. If being in one mediocre movie at a time won't do, they can be in a handful at once, and it feels like old pals Stiller and Wilson are trying to amuse each other just to stay interested. They have their moments -- Stiller's at his best dolled up as a middle-aged leisure-suit version of his father -- but they're random highlights, anthills in the canyon.
It's the small roles that leave the biggest impressions -- Will Ferrell as the imprisoned fetishist who gets Starsky and Hutch to act out his wildest fantasies in exchange for information, Vince Vaughn as the coke dealer planning a buy in the midst of his daughter's bat mitzvah, Har Mar Superstar as the disco schmuck who calls Starsky out for a dance-floor duel in a scene eerily reminiscent of Zoolander's walk-off. Indeed, whole scenes feel like moments and memories stolen from other movies these guys have made; Vaughn especially seems to be reprising his Old School character, with only the yarmulke and mustache and pistol suggesting otherwise. Even the wedding singer from Old School shows up performing at the bat mitzvah, rocking a 13-year-old into womanhood.
Starsky & Hutch is less homage to an old cop show than a tribute to the people who made the movie -- a circle pat on the back. And no obvious joke goes untouched; Phillips, after the berserko brilliance of Old School, is back to the flat comedy of Road Trip, another endless drive down clich highway. Snoop Dogg making pot jokes; who would have thought? Owen Wilson singing David Soul's "Don't Give Up on Us, Baby" to a dewy-eyed Ben Stiller -- didn't see that coming. There is even a New Coke joke; grandmothers in the audience loved it.
For the second time in as many years, Wilson stars in a feature-film remake of a buddy-cop TV show; he will also make a fine Cagney to Stiller's Lacey, should it come to that. He makes the most of his stoner's inflection, which works when he's playing a cop with a more-than-suggested drug habit; every declaration sounds like a question, every question comes with the reply already built in. When Stiller tosses a one-liner at a corpse floating in the ocean, Wilson's aghast. "You just tough-talked a dead guy?" he says, and it's less an inquiry than a slur coming through the smirk that never quite leaves his face. At least someone's having fun.