A correction was made to this review on Feb. 23, 2004.
Like most movies derived from 1960s and ’70s TV shows — and how many dozen have there been at this point? — “Starsky & Hutch” doesn’t possess the kind of ingenuity necessary to sustain feature length. Blessed with sporadic moments of cheeky fun, director pic isn’t painful but seldom advances beyond costumes and hairstyling in terms of creativity. Given that the show itself is a specific type of cultural relic — and probably doesn’t quite pack “Charlie’s Angels”-type resonance among present moviegoers — odds are what opening-weekend curiosity the duo musters won’t translate into much staying power.
As Ben Stiller’s second screwball comedy just this quarter (following “Along Came Polly”), it’s hard to gauge demand for another entry along these lines — especially after disappointing TV adaptations that included “The Mod Squad,” “SWAT” and “I Spy,” the last of which also co-starred Owen Wilson. Clearly, this is a jump not every show can make.
Billed as a comedy, the main problem is that the movie goes long, arid stretches without laughs, relying more on a general spoof-the-’70s ambience than any great guffaws. Toward that end, listen for practically every song from the decade mixed into a soundtrack that also liberally uses the synthesized “wah wah” noise that’s particular to both detective shows from this era and porn.
Director Todd Phillips, who shares script credit, can’t quite decide how far to delve into satire, thus oscillating between broad parody of the source and occasionally just feeling like a super-sized episode. Fortunately, there is some chemistry between his leads, who played together in “The Royal Tennenbaums,” and periodic injections of life from Snoop Dogg as snitch Huggy Bear and Will Ferrell (featured in Phillips’ “Old School”) in an uncredited cameo as a lascivious bad guy.
As is customary, “Starsky & Hutch” takes considerable liberties in setting up the bigscreen version, turning Starsky (Stiller) into a stiffly by-the-book cop — the kind who takes impossible rooftop leaps after perps — whereas Wilson’s Hutch is a rule-breaking ne’er-do-well. Thrown together as partners, a washed-up body in sunny Bay City eventually puts them in pursuit of another “Old School” alum, Vince Vaughn, playing Reese Feldman, an upscale cocaine dealer who worries about throwing a nice Bat Mitzvah party for his daughter.
Along the way, the mismatched buddies endure the disapproval of their captain (Fred Williamson) and woo a pair of cheerleaders (Amy Smart and Carmen Electra), with Hutch, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, gamely entertaining both when Starsky is incapacitated.
Despite fleeting references to artifacts ranging from “Easy Rider” to “Midnight Express,” “Starsky & Hutch” ends up being exactly what Stiller insists in the production notes that it isn’t — namely, an extended goof on the ’70s. From Starsky’s perm to the screeching wheels of his beloved Ford Gran Torino to a disco showdown, the conceit is strictly a “Wasn’t that silly?” approach, perhaps because the simple charms of a show that signed off 25 years ago don’t leave room for much else.
Both Stiller and Wilson have moments, though few stand out more than the initial sight of their dopey hairdos. Ultimately, only Snoop Dogg distinguishes himself, and even his cool can’t overcome the thin material, which becomes little more than a bloated episode in the last act.
To say that “Starsky & Hutch” generates more energy than recent predecessors engaged in similar vault robbing might sound like condemnation with faint praise, but it’s hard to dig up pearls from a recycling bin. Indeed, when style races this far ahead of substance, about the best one can hope for is a good hair day.