This is the latest in the genre I call lunchbox movies. Here is how these movies get made. A 30-something studio executive’s eyes light up when someone suggests a movie based on a cheesy-but-popular 1970’s television show. “I had that lunchbox!” he says. “Do you think we can get the original stars to do a cameo?” All that’s left is to sign up a couple of rising stars and license some oldies for the soundtrack, and we should be good to go.
But it’s trickier than it seems to get the tone right, as the producers of The Avengers and The Mod Squad found out. It has to have both genuine affection for the original and just the right touch of snarky post-modernism. It has to be funny but it also has to keep us engaged enough in the story to keep things moving. This movie gets it right.
Ben Stiller plays Starsky, the play-by-the-rules cop who takes everything very seriously, especially his beloved red Gran Torino with the white vector stripes. He has to try to live up to the standard set by his policewoman mother, but he acts as though he’s following a script. When there’s a shoot-out, Starsky always drops and rolls just a beat before or after it might possibly be necessary and he can’t seem to walk by that cool car without rolling across the hood.
Owen Wilson plays Hutch, the take-it-easy cop whose casual attitude makes him popular with everyone from pretty cheerleaders to cute neighborhood kids to slightly shady informants (including rapper Snoop Dog, the essence of real-life cool as Huggy Bear).
Starsky and Hutch are assigned to work together as punishment by their chief (70’s icon Fred Williamson). And of course at first they do not get along, and of course they then develop grudging respect for each other, and then affection and true partnership.
Cynical observers used to wonder whether the warm friendship between Starsky and Hutch was really deeper than 1970’s television could contemplate. This movie tweaks the idea a little, with the pair stumbling cluelessly through some mildly suggestive situations that feel like a part of its retro vibe.
Vince Vaughn brings his edgy silkiness to the role of the bad guy, a high class drug dealer. Will Ferrell contributes a funny cameo as a prisoner who likes dragons — embroidering them and having men pretend to be them. But the movie is all about the chemistry between Stiller and Wilson, now in their sixth film together, bring out the best in each other. Starsky narrows his eyes intensely as he looks down at a dead body. “You’ve punched your last ticket, amigo.” Hutch peers over at him. “Are you trying to tough talk a dead guy?”
After that, it’s just ringing changes on the most appallingly cheesy aspects of that cheesiest of decades. The soundtrack features “Afternoon Delight,” “I Can’t Smile Without You,” and the hit song by original Hutch David Soul — “Don’t Give Up on Us, Baby.” The clothes are one hilarious “what were we thinking” after another.
S&H go undercover in Easy Rider drag as “Kansas” and “Toto” (you’ll get that if you remember the 1970’s) to question the owner of a biker bar. They interrogate a cheerleader (and are struck speechless when she takes her clothes off). There’s a hilarious disco dance-off. Someone actually says “Sit on it.” And the original Starsky and Hutch show up for a funny cameo.
It’s silly, but it’s a lot of fun. Hmm, speaking of lunchboxes, I wonder if they can get the rights to “Adam 12?”
Parents should know that this movie has very explicit sexual situations and references for a PG-13, including “comic” gay overtones, a threesome (with girls kissing each other), and the swapping of mildly sexual favors for information from an informant. A character accidentally ingests cocaine and his strung-out meltdown is played for humor. Other characters drink and use cocaine (off-camera) and the plot centers on a huge cocaine deal. Characters are in peril. One is killed and a child is injured. There is some strong language, including racist epithets. A strength of the movie is the way that diverse characters work together. Some audience members may be offended by the fact that the villain is Jewish.
Families who see this movie should talk about what made Starsky and Hutch change their minds about each other. Why is it good to have friends who are not just like us? What does it mean to say “To err is human, to forgive divine?” (By the way, contrary to the two mis-attributions in the film, that was said by Alexander Pope.)
Families who enjoy this movie will get a kick out of the fan website for the television series. They might also enjoy other TV-inspired movies like Charlie’s Angels, The Brady Bunch, and SWAT. They should also take a look at the other Stiller/Wilson movies — five so far, including Zoolander, Meet the Parents, and The Royal Tannenbaums (all with some mature material).