It isn’t bad being Owen Wilson. If you’re Owen Wilson, you don’t really have to act. You just play yourself in movie after movie and people (including me) love you for it. For Owen, it’s just more of the same in Starsky & Hutch, but for his co-star Ben Stiller it’s time to come alive.
Stiller and Wilson star (as the title suggests) as Starsky and Hutch, in the movie version of the popular 70’s television show of the same name. As is common in these sorts of adaptations the movie doesn’t take its source material very seriously, resorting to comedy and outright parody where the original show might have opted for actual drama. But like the television show (which I’ve never seen) from which it spawns, Starsky & Hutch is still the story of two very 70’s detectives and their extremely cool car fighting crime in a city that needs cleaning up. On the case they get help from a colorful local pimp named Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg) and do borderline things that get them yelled at and predictably suspended by their Captain.
As the film opens, we dive into the 1970’s. Starsky is an overzealous cop who gets in trouble by taking his job too seriously. Hutch is an underachieving detective who plays fast and loose with the rules. Forced to partner, the two at first hate each other, only to eventually realize they work well together, even becoming friends. To solve a murder, the pair end up tackling a big time drug dealer (scene stealing Vince Vaughn), albeit ineffectually. Filled with the music, sounds, clothes, and pimps of the seventies, Starsky & Hutch has fun with its decade without clobbering us over the head with it the way Austin Powers did in the sixties.
Here’s the thing: I’m sick and tired of Ben Stiller. Isn’t everyone? I think even Stiller was bored with himself. How many movies does he do a year? Four? Five? All of them selected indiscriminately and guaranteed to be utterly mediocre. In each and every film he trots out the same tired shtick and the same tired character. Starsky & Hutch is a little different. Stiller still plays the same angry, overboard loser, except fortunately for S&H director Todd Phillips, the difference is that for the first time in years, Ben’s actually into it. He’s enjoying it. Suddenly Ben Stiller seems fresh and funny, capable of delivering a little extra on top of those old Ben Stiller gags. That’s a good thing, because though Wilson and Stiller share top billing, this movie hinges on Stiller’s Starsky. Owen still does his thing (which itself may someday become pretty tired), but unlike past performances isn’t stealing scenes. That leaves tons of room for Stiller to recapture what once made him great and just: “Do it.”
Maybe Wilson’s easy talking performances just bring out something inspired in Stiller. The last time they paired up in Zoolander was also the last time Stiller came close to being funny. This time, the chemistry between them proves legitimately hilarious as do the supporting characters Phillips has assembled around them. Snoop Dogg is a standout in the cast, but doesn’t get much to do beyond the great stuff you’ve already seen in the trailers. Vince Vaughn and most of the crew from Phillips previous film, Old School show up (including the band from Frank the Tank’s wedding) in varying capacity. Will Ferrell kills in the small but hilarious role of a dragon loving informant and Jason Bateman pops up as Vince Vaughn’s somewhat subdued partner. Carmen Electra is in there somewhere too, blissfully unaware that she is no longer of cheerleading age.
To be sure, all the buddy cop cliché’s are on parade in Starsky & Hutch. What else would you expect? But the twinkle in Starsky’s eye and sharp direction from talented helmer Todd Phillips gives them a kind of newness I haven’t seen in other TV to movie spoofations. The result is a surprisingly good time and perhaps even a wakeup call for the once great Ben Stiller, world’s most ape-like comedian.