Criminally Funny

Unequal-opportunity ridicule rules 'Starsky & Hutch'

There are people out there who love the '70s cop show Starsky & Hutch--and they're pissed. How could Road Trip director Todd Phillips be allowed to make fun of a serious drama that dealt with, like, drug abuse and rape? How could David Soul's by-the-book cop be turned into a crook-robbing, witness-shagging drunk? Wasn't Starsky the rule breaker of the two? And even he wouldn't have been caught dead riding Hutch bareback and snarling like a dragon! Why did they even use the show's name?

Well, my friend (why does Hutch say things that no one said in the '70s?), it's because the rest of us can only vaguely distinguish between 30-year-old cop shows--and vaguely familiar is gold in pop culture: The experience is guaranteed to be cheerfully comfy, but different enough from memory to keep us (barely) awake. This Starsky & Hutch is familiar three times over: There's the venerable Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson pairing, the market-proven Phillips-plus-Wilson-brother-plus-Vince Vaughn combo from Old School, and, yes, the road-tested red-with-white-stripe Torino. Not to mention the setting in the 1970s, that hallowed decade when men got to look pretty, act like dicks, and submit to sexually emancipated pussy. All this and still different enough from memory to keep us (barely) awake.

Funny as often as it is stupid (which is really saying something), the big-screen Starsky & Hutch captures the tenderness of the partners' first meeting and first big case. The case involves a drug deal organized by philanthropist Reese Feldman (Vaughn, doing his old-school charming-asshole shtick in pink polyester and perm). I don't know why the money-grubbing villain has to be Jewish, except that ethnic humor seems impermeable to social change. (I admit I couldn't stifle a giggle when Hutch calls a young Korean martial artist a "limber little dwarf.") I don't know why every woman here must be a supporting player in every sense--and bored and/or naked. (I admit I snorted when Hutch wonders, his voice raw with hope, whether the two women in his lap might want to kiss each other.)

Like most white male comedies of the past decade, Starsky & Hutch thinks it can get away with anything as long as it 'fesses up. Stiller overplays his eager "mama's boy" cop in order to show that no one's seriously mocking anal-compulsive, possibly homosexual men who are a little obsessed with their mothers: The joke is the silliness of the cliché. But who can help it if some people laugh at Starsky crying (and not at the cliché of men embarrassed by tears), or at Hutch carrying his partner up the stairs like a bride and tucking him into bed, or at Starsky having Vaseline-smeared fantasies of him and Hutch frolicking in the sand while the Carpenters sing "We've Only Just Begun"? (I admit I chuckled when convict Big Earl--played in an uncredited cameo by Will Ferrell--asks Starsky whether his "blond friend" will twirl for him.)

After all, the logic goes, the white male leads are humiliating themselves; it's only fair that everyone else gets hers. Ridiculous stereotypes abound, some of them ridiculously funny: Wilson defining dopey-sexy, Snoop Dogg glossing the mack daddy/snitch, Vaughn conveying criminal self-absorption with...criminal self-absorption. Still, some of these stereotypes are rewarded with more screen time, more money, and more character development than are others. The day that women and minorities have as much control over their filmic representations as straight white men have will be the day I believe in equal-opportunity ridicule. If comedy hasn't changed by 2030, I'm siding with the angries.

 
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