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Retro's epitaph 

A review of Starsky and Hutch

click to enlarge Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Starsky and Hutch.
  • Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Starsky and Hutch.

*Starsky and Hutch (PG-13)
Warner Bros

Since ours is a community where folks pray to any number of gods, goddesses, Earth spirits and Keebler elves, allow me to offer my own appeal to the Gold Coast's culture lords.

Mr. Weinstein? Mr. Grazer? Mr. Rudin? If your collective holinesses can hear me, please: No more films dedicated to the cultural detritus of the 1970s. Yes, it's true; the purple decade was every bit the fashion holocaust you depict. The mammoth lapels, the bell-bottomed leisure suits, the Afros -- it's hard to imagine anyone taking it seriously. But after Boogie Nights, The Brady Bunch (I-II) Austin Powers (Vol. I-III), The Virgin Suicides, That '70s Show et al., an unfortunate subgenre has been born.

Please let it die an early death.

All this is NOT to say, or pray, that Todd Phillips' Starsky and Hutch is anything but the finest sort of silly action spoof. However, the film succeeds on its own merit and not because of its lazy pop-culture nostalgia.

I'll confess that my age places me beyond the pale of primetime Starsky and Hutch television viewership (I did catch the tail end of its syndication run and always considered it an uppity version of The Dukes of Hazzard). Needless to say, Phillips is not merely spoofing the series, but the larger genre of '70s action films and TV shows.

Sudden zooms, slow-motion fantasy flashbacks and a score that's part brassy action themes and funked-out guitar riffs combine to create much textual spoofage. More importantly, the marriage of Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, who've appeared together in everything from Zoolander to The Royal Tennenbaums, work the best sort of straight guy, comic foil shtick.

The straight man, of course, is Wilson's Ken Hutchinson, whose charm is less surfer dude than a smarmy sort of golden boy who refuses to let the real world get him down. As a cop, Hutch's professional ethics fall somewhere between Jayson Blair's and Martha Stewart's stockbrokers'. Hutch has no problem drinking on the job, robbing bookies while allegedly working "undercover," and cozying up to underworld boss Huggy Bear (played with charm, if not skill, by our favorite fashizzle, Snoop Dogg.)

Where Wilson is breezy, Stiller's Starsky is a neurotic on par with any of Woody Allen's slapstick alter egos. Unable to transcend the legacy of his deceased cop mom, Starsky trudges on as a by-the-book cop who can't get anything right.

Stiller's specialty, of course, is playing the earnest loser. Not unlike the Focker character in Meet The Parents, Starsky exists on an emotional conveyor belt between professional enthusiasm and unbridled rage at his own misfortunes.

Balancing Hutch's id with Starsky's superego is a patent recipe for goofy high jinks. The unlikely partners get their big break in the form of identifying Jewish drug kingpin, Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), who has invented an untraceable form of cocaine that tastes like coffee sweetener.

Even though the ensuing gag is so predictable it might as well come with a press release, Starsky's inadvertent coke binge offers an excuse for more of Stiller's frenetic physical comedy. Here it's showcased in a head-to-head disco battle that, despite being the requisite retro '70s stock joke, manages to stay funny.

In fact, most of the ensuing humor is owed to Stiller's slapstick skills, which are all about balancing exaggerated physicality with facial expressions that range from steadfast concentration to an always short-lived arrogance.

Starsky and Hutch is helped out by minor characters like Will Ferrell, who plays a dragon-obsessed convict that provides tips in exchange for hilariously homoerotic favors. There are just enough laughs in Starsky to forget that recycled ideas from old TV shows are indicative of Hollywood's fear of trying anything new. Recycled or not, Starsky and Hutch is great screwball comedy. The downside is that its success will likely spawn more of the same, which won't always be funny.

While praying the '70s retro show comes to an end, I'm speculating on a feature-length Facts of Life starring Reese Witherspoon as Blair, Christina Ricci as Jo, and L'il Kim as Tutti. Let's pray it doesn't come to that, but I wouldn't put my money against it.

-- John Dicker

Tinseltown, Cinemark 16

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