Starsky & Hutch dir. Todd Phillips

Opens Fri March 5.

Finally, after weeks of gloom and depression, after wrestling with Errol Morris' The Fog of War and a reissue of The Battle of Algiers, after suffering through Bernardo Bertolucci's pretentious pseudo-porn and Mel Gibson's bloody Catholic porn, after all this... despair at the movies as of late, here comes a film that turns cheerlessness away at the door. Here is a film that has but one simple goal: to make you laugh. Here now, finally, is Starsky & Hutch.

You remember Starsky & Hutch, don't you? On the air from 1975-1979? Chances are you at least remember the car: a Ford Torino, tomato red, with a bitchin' white swoop dashed along its sides. David Starsky's Torino was, to be sure, the complete shit--at least when you were 13 and obsessed with Starsky & Hutch reruns--and its first appearance in this remake is handled with proper care. Which is to say, the "Striped Tomato" bows in exactly as we remember it: screeching and hairpinning through the streets of Bay City.

But while the creators of this new version of Starsky & Hutch show plenty of reverence for Starsky's car, the show itself is thoroughly violated. The original series, created by William Blinn, was intended as a "gritty" and "innovative" police drama, a show that prodded the fertile gray areas of big-city police work. Whether or not the show ever truly achieved that inflated claim is an argument for another time (on second thought, it can be settled right here: It didn't), but one thing's for certain about Starsky & Hutch 2004: The creators behind the new version have nothing but disdain for their source material. Hence their decision to not only mangle the show into a comedy, but to cast Ben Stiller--he of very little talent--as well.

Still, miraculously, the film puts up a decent, if not entirely successful, fight; director Todd Phillips, who himself has very little talent, has made a picture that hits slightly more than it misses, and the final tally magically rises from assured abomination to sorta-kinda okay. This, I'm well aware, is not high praise, but then when dealing with a film like Starsky & Hutch, praise rarely comes into play. The key question is, is it watchable?; the surprising reply is: Yeah, sure.

So how did it happen? How did a thoroughly bankrupt idea like turning Starsky & Hutch into a feature-length film muster the energy to make itself watchable? An answer surely lies in Owen Wilson, whose spin as Ken Hutchinson (AKA "Hutch") pilfers the show. There are three types of actors in the world: those who rely on talent, those who rely on on-screen charisma, and those who are just plain fascinating--and entertaining--to watch, no matter what they do. Owen Wilson, with his spacy delivery and damaged nose, belongs in the final group. Whenever he speaks, his words appear to be soaked in sincerity, but there are hints of mocking just beneath the surface, and the result is a performer who, no matter what he says, is terribly hard to take seriously. Wilson has the remarkable ability to seem coolly in control yet utterly confused at the same time, and in high drama such a trait would spell disaster. In comedy, however--or in attempted comedy--Wilson's kinks are so watchable that he can drag whatever slop he's found himself in into something approaching respectable art. Wilson may be a flake, he may be a fake, but you sit at attention whenever he's working, and there are long stretches of Starsky & Hutch where he alone keeps the show from drowning.

Thankfully, though, Wilson also has help, courtesy of a surprising source: Vince Vaughn. For those of us who were dazzled by Vaughn in Swingers, only to watch in sorrow as his career combusted in a string of follow-up tripe (cf. The Lost World, Return to Paradise, Psycho, et al.), his performance as the villainous drug dealer Reese Feldman in Starsky & Hutch reminds us of better times. Sleazy and mustachioed (or is that the same thing?), Vaughn is so easy and engaging that you find yourself disappointed whenever he breezes off-screen. His character's nefarious plan is, of course, completely disposable (something about cocaine that has been chemically altered to be undetectable by DEA drug-sniffing dogs), but Vaughn's hysterical smarminess, especially when jousting with Owen Wilson, can make you giddy. They are the real show on display here. Call it Hutch & Feldman.

Still, don't get me wrong; despite high praise for Wilson and Vaughn, Starsky & Hutch is not a great success. It's barely a marginal success--funny Ha, not funny Ha Ha. Far too obvious on many occasions, often derailed by Ben Stiller's overreaching, the film as a whole is little more than predictable fluff. This, perhaps, is just as it should be; the TV version was a fairly forgettable affair (hence its brief four-year stint), and it would be asking far too much for a film version to offer anything more. In the end, Starsky & Hutch is what it is: a cool car, a handful of laughs beyond a chortle, a silly, disposable bit of entertainment. Which, I'm sure, is exactly what you expected. If not, your expectations are far too high.

brad@thestranger.com

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