Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Snoop Dogg, Vince Vaughn, Juliette Lewis, Will Ferrell, Fred Williamson, Carmen Electra, Amy Smart, Chris Penn
Written by: Scot Armstrong, Stevie Long, John O'Brien and Todd Phillips
Directed by: Todd Phillips
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug content, sexual situations, partial nudity, language and some violence
Running Time: 100
Date: 02/26/2004

Starsky & Hutch (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cops Making Nonsense

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last year I received a DVD called The Greatest 70s Cop Shows, which contained pilot episodes for five such programs. I slogged my way through "Charlie's Angels," "The Rookies," "S.W.A.T." and "Police Woman," noting how poorly these shows had aged. The biggest surprise was that the fifth one, "Starsky & Hutch," still worked.

A combination of wry humor, violence and ultra-coolness, it occurred to me that Quentin Tarantino -- or at least one of his many imitators -- could have made one hell of a brilliant movie from it. Instead, I was horribly disappointed to learn that it was being produced as a straight comedy by a director with no flair for action sequences and starring, of all people, Ben Stiller.

Happily, as directed by Todd Phillips, the new Starsky & Hutch movie has an infectiously breezy, devil-may-care attitude and the laughs keep coming. Thanks to three clever comic performances by Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson and Snoop Dogg.

The movie takes place in the fictitious Bay City in the Seventies, where cop Starsky (Stiller) tries to live up to his legendary police mom and routinely fails. The more laid-back Hutch (Wilson) uses his undercover prowess to enhance his income by knocking over a few crooked bookies. Their captain (Fred Williamson) pairs them up, and whenever possible, the hip underworld lord Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg) lends them a hand.

The plot involves our heroes trying to nail a drug pusher, Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), who has invented a new kind of cocaine that tastes like artificial sweetener. Yet Phillips and co-writers John O'Brien, Scot Armstrong and Steve Long forgo any kind of suspense or even structure in favor of laughs, which turns out to be a wise decision.

Though I chuckled along all the way through Starsky & Hutch, the biggest belly laughs were provided by Will Ferrell, as one of Feldman's cohorts stuck in prison. Our heroes come to interview him about the cocaine and, in exchange for information, he makes them cater to his strange fetishes.

Ferrell also stole the few funny moments from Phillips' last film, Old School, a film everyone seems to know is bad but can't help enjoying anyway (this generation's Caddyshack?). Like Owen Wilson, Ferrell brings an entirely new kind of humor to the screen, coming from a tender place within. Both comics are not afraid to appear vulnerable and speak their true feelings for a laugh. Ferrell is simply unfiltered, a grown man acting like a happy child, and Wilson is a sly charmer whose drawling one-liners always reveal some kind of twisted, cheerful truth.

Stiller's humor, however, relies on exhausted, hundred-year old vaudeville routines, rooted in lies instead of truth. The Stiller character is completely inept at everything he tries, yet he has an intolerable arrogance about himself. He's unreasonably stiff, at least until the other characters loosen him up. The only good thing about his teaming with Wilson -- their fifth picture together, not counting The Cable Guy -- is that Wilson continually picks on him, much to my enjoyment.

In one sequence, Stiller accidentally takes the cocaine in his coffee -- a fairly predictable gag -- and ramps up his unpleasantness to a much higher degree. He engages in a disco dance floor battle before being carried home and put to bed, thereby ruining the partners' double date with two sexy cheerleaders (Carmen Electra and Amy Smart).

Or does he? Wilson returns from the bedside and plops down on the couch between the two girls, acting harmless and sleepy, until one of them kisses him. "Where did that come from?" he grins, innocently. "Why don't you two kiss?" he suggests, smiling so that only he -- and we -- can see.

In other words, Stiller uses a sledgehammer for his humor while Wilson uses a feather. The former gets old very fast, while the latter actually makes you laugh. Oddly, the two actors' solo outings have performed exactly the opposite. Stiller's frustrating Along Came Polly has earned a fortune, while Wilson's enjoyable The Big Bounce flopped and disappeared -- which, I suppose, will only further convince studios that Stiller is a bankable star and Wilson is not.

Fans of the original "Starsky & Hutch" TV show will find even less in this new movie than "Charlie's Angels" fans did in last year's big budget sequel. The clothes are about the same, and the famous "Red Tomato" is there, but the entire rhythm and tone has changed. The real S&H (Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul) make cameos at one point, but I missed Antonio Fargas, who played the original Huggy Bear.

Fortunately, Snoop Dogg punches in as the year's casting coup (he also made a cameo appearance in Old School). He drips charisma and has proven himself capable of both comedy and drama, at least in character roles; catch him as the wheelchair-bound stool pigeon in Training Day.

Phillips has proven more adept at directing character parts, like Snoop's and Ferrell's than he has at sustaining a feature-length story. He clearly loves actors and gives them plenty to do; at least four cast members have returned from previous Phillips films to work with him again. Phillips has even succeeded in making Stiller less annoying than usual, or at least folding him into the mix with a little more care than other directors have exhibited.

Sadly, he has also toned himself down for his first foray into big-budget filmmaking. This is the man who began his career by filming the foulest punk rock band in history for the 1994 documentary Hated: G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies, capturing imagery that would require me to use several unprintable words. In Starsky & Hutch however, he bows to the MPAA ratings board and blows a simple gag by hiding and editing around a busty blonde's ("Baywatch's" Brande Roderick) ample talents during her dressing room interrogation by our two cops.

Still, hit or miss, it's the little episodes that make Starsky & Hutch worth it, the combined work of a talented ensemble. It's like going to a party. When you think back and laugh, you're picturing many happy faces.

DVD Details: Though it was funny the first time, and with an audience, I'm not sure how much more Ben Stiller I can take. The new DVD comes with a gag reel and deleted scenes, a "making of mockumentary" hosted by Huggy Bear, a director commentary track and the theatrical trailer. The film comes with an optional French language track and optional French, English and Spanish subtitles.

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