Starsky & Hutch
Director : Todd Phillips
Screenplay : John O’Brien and Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong (story by Stevie Long and John O’Brien, based on characters created by William Blinn)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Ben Stiller (David Starsky), Owen Wilson (Ken Hutchinson), Snoop Dogg (Huggy Bear), Fred Williamson (Captain Doby), Vince Vaughn (Reese Feldman), Juliette Lewis (Kitty), Jason Bateman (Friday), Amy Smart (Holly), Carmen Electra (Staci), George Kee Cheung (Chau), Chris Penn (Manetti), Brande Roderick (Heather)
Long before Saturday Night Live’s superheroic “Ambiguously Gay Duo,” there was Starsky & Hutch, a tough, violent buddy-cop show that ran from 1975 to 1979. Although loaded with every signifier of upright masculinity imaginable—a series of hot girlfriends, a tough car, big guns—the show was also replete with enough gay subtext to generate its own subcultural fan base. It isn’t surprising that this was one of the last successful ’70s TV shows to be recycled into a major movie (following such duds as The Mod Squad and I Spy)—producers were probably scared to death that the film’s not-so-closeted legacy made it untouchable as a serious action flick ala S.W.A.T..
So, the answer was to turn it into a wink-wink comedy, which is exactly what director Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School) has done. And the question of whether Phillips makes good on the original series’ (un)intended gay subtext is clearly answered when Starsky (Ben Stiller) hungrily chomps into an oversize hotdog while, in the reverse shot, Hutch (Owen Wilson) is flanked by a poster bearing the image of a vertically erect hotdog that looks like something else entirely. It’s a small masterstroke of phallic symbolism that’s just too obvious to dismiss (they could have stopped for hamburgers, after all).
Well, actually the question is answered earlier, when Starsky and Hutch are in the police precinct shower still wearing their holstered sidearms, but barely concealing their unmentionables with hilariously miniscule handtowels wrapped around their waists. No, surely it’s when Starsky has the dream of he and Hutch, wearing matching shirts emblazoned with their names in rainbow colors, frolic along the beach together in dreamy slow motion. Or, actually, it’s really answered when the dynamic duo willingly compromise all their dignity to get some information by performing (if that’s the right word) for Big Earl (Will Ferrell), an unshaven, hairnet-wearing con who has a thing for dragons … and Hutch.
All the gayness in Starsky & Hutch is played purely for in-joke laughs, and it gives the comedy an edge that it otherwise lacks. The rest of the material is obsessed with retro humor derived from making fun of tired buddy-cop and police show clichés and the glorious ugliness of everything ’70s. While it’s good for a few laughs in the vein of VH-1’s retrospective docs, there’s nothing truly outstanding. Phillips playfully adopts the style of a mid-’70s TV show, complete with sudden zooms, slow motion, and freeze frames, which adds a layer of aesthetic humor, as well. The choice of ’70s-era pop music is sometimes too obvious (Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine,” natch), but sometimes it’s perfectly in synch with the movie’s simultaneous spoof humor and genuine affection for its characters (note the use of The Carpenters when Starsky and Hutch “break up,” for lack of a better term).
Stiller and Wilson, who have worked together in five movies now, have long since learned the odd-couple ropes of playing off each other’s strengths (witness their seemingly effortless comic banter at the Oscar telecast, something that John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, so perfect together in Pulp Fiction, couldn’t pull off). In playing Starsky and Hutch, they both riff on their already long-cemented big-screen personas, but the fit is so comfortable that it’s hard to argue with it.
Stiller plays the uptight, overdetermined David Starsky, a career cop who takes his careerism a little too seriously (in the opening scene, we witness him in reckless hot pursuit of a thief … who just stole $7). He’s constantly getting in trouble for trying too hard, and the rest of the precinct thinks he’s a joke. But, what really has him emasculated is the fact that he has to live up to the reputation of his deceased mother, apparently the greatest cop Bay City has ever seen. Wilson’s Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson is just the opposite—a shaggy, lackadaisical cop who takes advantage of the system by playing both sides of the law at his leisure. Starksy’s overtaxed professionalism is obviously bound to conflict with Hutch’s lazy opportunism, and one of the small miracles the movie pulls off is the organic way in which they slowly meet in the middle and become friends first, partners second.
The story, unimportant as it is, revolves around S & H trying to bust a wealthy drug lord, who is played by Vince Vaughn in a cheesy handlebar moustache (his righthand man, a wormy little guy played by Justin Bateman, has a moustache barely this side of adolescent pubes). To get to the bad guys, S & H have to do some undercover work, including dressing up as a pair of Easy Rider clones in order to infiltrate a biker bar (hilariously deflated when the bartender immediately declares that Starsky’s moustache is fake—what is it with this movie and moustaches?). They also have to work closely with Huggy Bear, a self-proclaimed “urban informant” played by Snoop Dogg in a barely disguised retro-dressed version of himself. Seeing Snoop decked out in a multicolored full-length fur coat isn’t nearly as funny as seeing him stripped down to his skivvies and getting hooked up with a wire that looks like it came from Radio Shack. Uh-oh, here comes that subtext again …
All in all, Starsky & Hutch makes good on its promise to turn a once-serious, but now campy TV show into a knowing big-screen comedy. It’s never quite as good as you’d wish it would be, although there are a couple of scenes that are real gems, such as when Stiller accidentally gets hopped up on cocaine and enters a disco dance-off and Wilson finds himself in the enviable position of participating in three-way sex with Carmen Electra and Amy Smart playing cheerleaders whose witness potential is a distant second to their status as pure eye candy. Maybe the whole thing’s not so gay after all.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Warner Brothers. and Dimension Films