It’s no trick to turn a cruddy television series into a cruddy movie; the big-screen versions of ”The Beverly Hillbillies” and ”The Mod Squad” proved that. But to turn fondly remembered TV trash into a movie that knows it’s cruddy – and that isn’t, therefore, quite as cruddy as it might have been – takes a perverse pinch of talent, if not style.
In the amiable, light-as-a-Cheez Doodle Starsky & Hutch, Ben Stiller, as Bay City detective David Starsky, struts around in too-tight jeans and wears a very serious windswept perm that functions as the pouffy-haired equivalent of platform shoes (he could be John Oates without the mustache). Stiller keeps breaking into ”macho” tantrums that are really supercharged hissy fits. It would be hard to name another actor who could make smashing a chair against a wall look quite this harmless. As Starsky’s partner, Ken ”Hutch” Hutchinson, who’s a no-worries kind of guy, Owen Wilson doesn’t take off on David Soul nearly as much as Stiller does on Paul Michael Glaser, but his shaggy-surfer daze is a good foil for Stiller’s uppity tightness.
When ”Starsky & Hutch” first came on the air, in 1975, it was known, and even assailed, as a smokingly violent cop show, one that pushed the envelope of what TV detectives could get away with. The movie’s decent but almost too easily digested joke is that what looked, at the time, like the boob tube version of ”Dirty Harry” tactics was really an excessive form of blow-dried beefcake preening. Our heroes score a date with a couple of pliant, cooing cheerleaders (Carmen Electra and Amy Smart), but the two men are so in love with their own rugged cool that it virtually seems a moment of destiny when they stand around in their holsters and locker-room sandals and the movie descends into a winky homoerotic jape.
Mildly clever, ”Starsky & Hutch” is mostly just mild. Coming off his slob-comedy hits ”Road Trip” and ”Old School,” the director, Todd Phillips, once again demonstrates his unseemly affection for the tacky and the disreputable. As a series, ”Starsky & Hutch” featured a sanitized version of some of the badass tics of blaxploitation films, and the movie, following suit, revels in the mod kitsch of prefab ’70s street thrills – the wide-collar leather coats and wood-paneled pimp dens, the way that Starsky does screeching donut turns in his Ford Gran Torino, as if to advertise how dangerous he is. Phillips achieves a look of lurid flatness and throws in a few rapid-fire zooms, tickling our eyes with memories of an era when buddy cops ruled the bland zone of prime time.
”Starsky & Hutch” is satire, all right, but just barely. It probably comes closer than any movie has yet to incarnating the attitude of the popular VH1 series ”I Love the ’70s” (and ”’80s”), in which all entertainment is recalled as junk, and affection and derision merge into the same arch sense of superiority. As a movie, however, ”Starsky & Hutch” stretches the laugh potential of bad period hair and wah-wah-pedal chase music awfully thin. ”In Bay City,” snarls Starsky, ”when you cross the line, your nuts are mine!” A crack like that was probably intended by the screenwriters to be the sort of stupido gem the snarking heads of ”I Love the ’70s” recall with such glee. But, of course, we know all too well the line has been planted there for us to find it stupid. The film could have used more cheeky insanity, like the scene where Starsky, out of his gourd on cocaine, gets into a disco face-off that’s dorky enough to give you giggles of embarrassment. Stiller once again turns a hipster’s short fuse into the ultimate schlemiel defense mechanism, but his performance, while it earns a handful of chuckles, doesn’t carry nearly the zing of myopic self-love that he had opposite Wilson in the far funnier ”Zoolander.”
The casting of the underworld types is oddly lackluster. Snoop Dogg brings his hollow-cheeked scowl to the role of Huggy Bear, but since the gag is that this hustler is neutered by his coziness with the law, you wish the movie had done more to pay homage to Antonio Fargas’ ferocious curled lips and mincing strut on the TV series. As the coke dealer the boys are trying to bring down, Vince Vaughn, in hideous curls, hosts a bat mitzvah, as if the mere presence of Jewishness in a gangster were automatically hilarious. Todd Phillips, who started out making creepy (and funny) documentaries, has become a canny repackager of yesterday’s schlock – a mall-friendly purveyor of arrested comedy for an arrested world. He represents the smartening up of dumbing down. But is that a good thing?