back to the Black Table
               
  STARSKY & A TOUCH OF OCCASIONALLY AMUSING PARODY.  
   
   
 

If you are dismayed at the arrival of yet another tired rehash of pop culture (today's episode: "Starsky & Hutch"), I have good news and bad news.

Although Starsky & Hutch is yet another useless remake of an iconic television show, and has the comic punch of a 12:57 'SNL' sketch, the movie is a well crafted, good-natured and occasionally inspired

 
 

parody of TV cop shows and the bad taste of the 70s. Director Todd Philips' camera work is never too showy -- wise, since Spike Jonze pretty much closed the book on this sort of thing in his Beastie Boys "Sabotage" video -- but those familiar with 'gritty' 70s cop shows will appreciate things like the funky backing tracks and the smash zooms on important visual cues. This film has everything but a voice urgently announcing that you've just seen "A Quinn Martin Production."

The bad news? The Jews are made out to be the villains -- again.

It's a shame that "Starsky &

       
 

Hutch" has come along now that Ben Stiller's mock-epic schtick has started to grow a little moldy, because many scenes in this film are as deft and screamingly perfect as any in "The Ben Stiller Show". With apologies to Mr. Cruise, Starsky is the role Stiller was born to play. A cop equally dedicated to catching criminals and punctilious hair care, Starsky is what you'd call a lifer. At one point Hutch (Owen Wilson) asks Starsky, "When you're on duty, don't you even stop and get a cup of coffee?" Starsky gives Hutch a withering look and snaps, "I bring a thermos." On his walls he has a mint "Dirty Harry" poster and a gaudy Warhol-ish print of .38 caliber handguns ("Reloading..." it says in cursive).

In an amusing twist on the hero's requisite emotional demons, Starsky is living in the shadow of the truly great cop in the family -- his mother. Like other Stiller characters, the Quixotic Starsky is amusing because the role he has cast himself in is the hero, whereas, to everyone else, he's just the comic relief.

Starsky's self-esteem is constantly and hilariously under siege, and he keeps his pride intact by clinging with childlike rapaciousness to various security blankets, namely his badge, gun and of course the famous Ford Torino. The iconic car gets quite a workout in this film. The first time it appears, Starsky comes rocketing out of a parking garage, barreling into the middle of traffic. He's not actually chasing anyone, it turns out. He always drives like this.

When the car takes a few bullets later on, Starsky is as indignant as Vincent Vega in "Pulp Fiction": "What kind of a world do we live in where someone would do something like this?"

The almost totemic Torino is the gem of the film's central strain of humor: the metrosexual vanity of the preening partners, a theme that gets off to a nice start when Starsky takes a moment to favor us with an introduction to himself: "That's me, the guy in the leather jacket and tight jeans." Of course, Stiller has already done this material in "Zoolander" (also starring Wilson), but here he's thankfully less cartoonish. Mercifully shelved is the trademark supermodel squint; Stiller must have figured that Starsky's invincible perm would suffice. And rightly so.

If the movie consisted entirely of snarky nostalgia and disco jokes, it would have failed completely. Many of the jabs at the 70s fall flat, including a disco sequence that seemed old when Mike Myers did it as Goldmember a few years ago. But there's great chemistry between the leads. Stiller and Wilson make the most amusingly mismatched cops since Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd in "Dragnet" -- Starsky is the wound-up Joe Friday to Hutch's laid back Pep Streebeck. There the comparison ends, however, as the Friday-Streebeck partnership didn't have the obvious homoerotic dimension that Starsky and Hutch do. The subtext is thanks in large part to a soundtrack full of drippy A.M. love songs that Philips expertly uses in one of the film's great running gags. Someday these two may be sharing more than donuts.

Wilson's slacker Hutch is the perfect foil for Stiller's anal Starsky. He endears because somehow all his lines are delivered with a tacit shrug. Hutch's boyish, sleepy affability has more in common with his sweet turn in "Bottle Rocket" than Wilson's knockabout Jackie Chan comedies. There's just something likeable about him that grounds the film.

For instance, just when the visual joke of watching Starsky and Hutch going undercover as mimes looks like it's overstaying its welcome, Hutch, out of mime material, breaks cover and apologetically tells his audience, "Uh, I'm going to do the glass wall thing again." Watching Starsky gradually come to appreciate this unlikeliest of golden boys yields some of the most romantic scenes in recent memory.

As in "Old School", Philips knows how to manage a fine supporting cast. Will Ferrell nearly steals the whole movie in a bit part as a felon with a unique fetish. He seems well on his way to becoming a partner in the firm of Belushi, Chase and Murray. There's also Vince Vaughn as the bad guy, Feldman, his snappiest role since "Swingers"; Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear, who may be remembered for this role the way Charlton Heston is with Moses; and even Jason Bateman (yes, that Jason Bateman) manages some laughs as a bean counter.

Although the parody seems broad at first, it's actually built on smaller, well-observed gestures, sharp writing, and subtle visual gags. Seen in large print in the police station hallway is an arrow pointing to something called "Analytical Subpoena Control". Given an uncharacteristic assignment as a golf caddy, Huggy Bear pedantically protests that he's just "an urban informer."

The writers (John O'Brien, Todd Phillips, and Scot Armstrong) have a particularly fantastic ear for absurd cop dialogue. Starsky and Hutch have the usual street-savvy exchanges that mostly amount to nonsense. Hutch: "He knows how to stay clean". Starsky: "The dirty ones always do". As a tribute to the smartness of this film's parodic core, I submit that if those lines had been used in "NYPD Blue" the show's viewers wouldn't have noticed a thing.