Archive for March 2004

The Ladykillers (2004)

March 26, 2004

“Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr” is a wonderful name for a conniving smoothie, and Tom Hanks plays the role like a man who relishes nothing so much as unfurling that majestic name. In The Ladykillers, Hanks is looser and funnier than he has been in quite some time; he affects a triumphantly baroque Mississippi accent and speaks with the utmost hilarious precision, as if his every sentence were a dewy lover leaving the folds of his bedsheets. It’s a fully imagined comic performance to match that of Alec Guinness, who played the analogous role in the original 1955 comedy from the Ealing Studios. I can’t remember the last movie character so charmingly in love with the sound of his own voice.

This Ladykillers comes courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen, whom some may consider above something so base as a remake. But the original story (like Assault on Precinct 13) allows for any number of retellings; the true star of both movies is the premise. In both, a band of criminals hole up in the home of an elderly lady, under the pretense of practicing chamber music. They plan to pull off a big heist, but the old lady gets in their way. Except for the mastermind (Guinness in ’55, Hanks in ’04) and a big, brainless bruiser (Danny Green then, Ryan Hurst now), the criminals in the remake don’t correspond much to those in the original; there’s no callous Herbert Lom figure in the Coen film, or an equivalent to Peter Sellers’ Cockney layabout. The new group includes a hip-hop janitor (Marlon Wayans), a demolition man (J.K. Simmons), and a stoic ass-kicker (Tzi Ma).

The old lady in the original was a twittering dear thing with a habit of reporting imagined oddities to the police. In the remake, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is a formidable black woman as comfortable handing out slaps upside the head as serving cookies. The Coens’ script is a little foreshortened; those familiar with William Rose’s 1955 scenario will miss the circular logic that allows the police to disregard the old lady’s story (in the remake, she reports a neighbor’s loud “hippity-hop” music). Still, Irma P. Hall makes a strong foil for the inept thieves, especially Marlon Wayans, who at the moment of truth — as in the prior film, he’s drawn the short straw and has to eliminate Marva — is undone by sentimental thoughts of his mama.

A character who picks the worst possible time to have bowel problems may seem a bit too scatological for the Coens’ refined tastes. But then these are the same pranksters who had thugs pee on Jeff Bridges’ rug in The Big Lebowski (“That rug really pulled the room together, man”). A scene involving self-defense at a donut shop (with the instant-classic line “Get your fingers out my man’s nose!”) had me laughing well after it was over. Ryan Hurst, as the aptly named Lump, gives us one of those hyperbolically stupid Coen characters, introduced in a highly entertaining idiot’s-point-of-view scene on a football field. Even a cat doesn’t escape the morbid Coen touch, providing this darkening comedy with its final brilliant sick joke. (A barge passing under a bridge, as in the original, serves nicely as a means to dispose of inconvenient objects.)

Tom Hanks presides over it all, looking and acting supremely happy to be there, like previous stars who’ve blossomed under the Coens’ jurisdiction (Nicolas Cage, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney). The Ladykillers is worth seeing just for the moments when the quick-thinking Professor Dorr, never less than exquisitely solicitous, moves heaven and earth to explain to his suspicious landlady why money is floating around the root cellar, or lends his golden pipes to a recitation of Poe, or attempts to calm a gun-waving Marlon Wayans by pointing out that such behavior reflects badly on his colleagues and may present itself as unseemly to their fellow patrons of the Waffle Hut. I can well imagine the Coens guffawing as they wrote the dialogue for Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, and Hanks cackling as he first read it, and myself laughing when I hear it on the sure-to-be-overplayed DVD.


March 26, 2004

Artists ranging from Nina Simone to Marianne Faithfull have covered the Threepenny Opera song “Pirate Jenny,” and Lars von Trier is the latest. Dogville, which has sparked controversy and debate ever since premiering at Cannes, takes the Brecht/Weill ditty as its inspiration, wedding it to the homespun theatrics of Thornton Wilder. Dogville is, at first, ostentatiously stagey: The entire film unfolds on a vast soundstage, with chalk marks denoting the outlines of the streets and delapidated homes of the town, not to mention benches and gooseberry bushes and even the town dog Moses. Yet this minimalist, digital-video-shot film has its own cinematic flash and thunder, and does things only movies can do.

Told in “nine chapters and a prologue,” Dogville introduces us to the inhabitants of a near-death mountain town (during the Depression, one assumes), and a more motley crew would be hard to imagine. The youthful, philosophical, and rather pompous Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) is the town’s nagging conscience, exhorting them to be “open” to new ideas. But most of them, including the weary laborer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård, in one of his finest performances) and Tom’s own father (Philip Baker Hall), a hypochondriacal doctor, don’t care to hear it. The townspeople — numbering fifteen in all — attend Tom’s “meetings” mostly to humor him, but probably also because, well, what else have they got to do?

Into this close-knit town comes Grace (Nicole Kidman), pursued by shadowy men with guns. Tom finds her first, and offers to take her in. She gratefully accepts, and the town agrees to give her two weeks in Dogville, so that they can get to know her. Grace spends this time offering her services doing things that don’t necessarily need doing (there’s so little work in Dogville that the townspeople pretty much have it covered). In time, Grace is accepted. She seems ready to start her life over in this placid, unchanging locale. But the story doesn’t end there.

Von Trier has said that he intended Dogville as the first film in a trilogy. But it could also function as the final film in an unofficial trilogy that began with his Breaking the Waves (1996) and continued with Dancer in the Dark (2000). All three focus on women put to gruelling tests by larger forces — fate, society, religion. Nicole Kidman, who has run hot and cold with me, weighs in here with a performance of willing subserviance — to the material and to the director — that rivals the work of Emily Watson and Björk in von Trier’s earlier dramas. Everyone in the large ensemble seems to jump at the opportunity to work with such meaty yet primal material, from youngsters like Jeremy Davies (as a shy doofus) and Chloë Sevigny (as his acerbic sister) to veterans Lauren Bacall (as the stubborn tender of the gooseberry bushes) and Ben Gazzara (as a blind man too proud to admit his disability). Presiding over everything is the God’s-eye narration, spoken by John Hurt in nostalgic, dulcet tones.

The town brings Grace to her knees over the span of three hours of screen time, yet Dogville, for all its “stage”-set whimsy and its imaginary trees and houses, never lags. The downward spiral is transfixing, the apocalyptic finale shocking. At heart, Dogville is a cinematic novel about hypocrisy, an attack on those who espouse “American values” without practicing them. The film is not called Grace; the town rejects grace (the quality and the person) and the possibility of redemption through hard work. Grace is running from a past worth running from, and Dogville’s resident moralists prove themselves only too eager to throw her back to the wolves. In doing so, they become no better than the wolves, and we are left to judge them worthy of their fate. “Pirate Jenny” is a fantasy, a song of empowerment sung by a maid, and it’s possible to read the climax of Dogville that way, too. But I doubt that’s the interpretation von Trier had in mind.

Jersey Girl

March 26, 2004

Kevin Smith, the rude auteur behind the Jay & Silent Bob movies (including Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma), has finally made a movie that grandmothers can go see. I know, because I saw several of them at the screening I attended. Longtime fans, though, needn’t fear Jersey Girl for its PG-13 rating and its cute-little-girl emphasis. The movie is mature and heartfelt, though not overly saccharine; I enjoyed it far more than I did Chasing Amy, Smith’s previous attempt to speak truths about his life through the avatar of Ben Affleck (I realize Amy is some people’s favorite Smith film, but it simply rubbed me the wrong way). Here, the story has just enough autobiography and just enough invention, and Smith doesn’t feel the need to bury the characters’ feelings in excess verbiage.

Affleck is Ollie Trinke, a sharpie ruling the roost at a New York PR firm. He meets and marries Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez, who in her brief appearance reminds you why she appealed to you before the whole J.Lo media assault); they have a daughter, whereupon Gertrude immediately dies. Ollie tries to juggle his job and new fatherhood for a brief time, fobbing the baby off on his gruff dad (George Carlin) whenever possible. After a particularly stressful night at the office, during which he insults both the press and his firm’s hot new client, Ollie is ousted; he returns in disgrace to his dad’s house, takes a job with him cleaning the streets of Highlands, New Jersey, and determines to be a better father.

Cut to seven years later: Ollie’s daughter Gertie (Raquel Castro), whip-smart and precocious, has become the center of his world. Deep down, he still yearns for the monetary chaos of New York, the dazzle and deals, the life. Parenthood does change everything, as Bill Murray so memorably pointed out in Lost in Translation, and there may be a part of Kevin Smith that misses the old days, unfettered by children, in which he could hang out and read comics and make movies. It hasn’t been entirely an either-or proposition for Smith, though: he has kept his hand in writing comics as well as making movies (his output may have slowed a little, but he’s made two films now since the birth of his daughter). So Ollie’s plight is something Smith sees happening to the people around him, I assume.

Complicating matters is an angel in New Jersey, in the form of Liv Tyler as a video-store clerk who openly hungers for Ollie (while, in the best Gen-X fashion, denying that she is). Affleck and Tyler have played lovers before, in the execrable Armageddon, but here, working with a real writer-director, they’re charming enough to make you forget that idiotic animal-crackers scene. Like many movie widowers, Ollie is held back by continuing love for his dead wife, but we suspect he’s also wary of getting attached to a New Jersey woman when he fully intends to move back to New York, someday. As an important PR job interview opens up, competing with Gertie’s school-play performance of a number from Sweeney Todd (only in a Kevin Smith movie), Ollie faces a Hard Choice.

Jersey Girl is good-hearted entertainment that goes down easy. Do I miss the old Kevin Smith — the one who trafficked in deliriously profane streams of insult and debate? Sure. Without asking for more Jay & Silent Bob, I do hope that Smith has more rascally commentary films like Dogma in his arsenal (he’s already advised fans not to expect more family-friendly films where this came from). But as a one-shot essay on the pressures of fatherhood and the bewilderments of new love, it works fine. Smith restores much of Ben Affleck’s credibility as an actor, plucks the Elf ears off Liv Tyler and makes her glow anyway, writes the perfect irascible role for George Carlin, and handles (with the invaluable help of veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) the movie’s weightier emotional moments with no evidence of undue strain. Not a bad way at all to kick off View Askew’s second decade.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

March 19, 2004

Of the recent spate of unnecessary remakes of horror classics (2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the nadir), the new “re-imagining” of George A. Romero’s 1979 Dawn of the Dead is probably the least shabby. For some of the running time, I agreed to accept it as a variant tale following survivors at another mall at the same time as the events in Romero’s film. But this remake, directed without much personality by first-timer Zack Snyder, cannot come anywhere near Romero’s achievement — which was not only a satire of consumerism, but also a snapshot of an exhausted, demoralized American period. As the Romero film opens, the flesh-eating zombies have been rampaging for a good long while (it was, after all, a continuation of Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead); the lead characters have been dealing with the aftermath, on the front line of the action, so we understood why their instinct was to move to the relatively quiet confines of a shopping mall.

The new film opens with a glimpse of normality, only to be shattered when people start dying and coming back to life. The pre-credits sequence, which follows young nurse Sarah Polley as she frantically negotiates her way through a neighborhood gone mad, does capture what it might be like to go to sleep in ignorant bliss and wake up to a world in which everything has gone to hell. It packs an eerie post-9/11 frisson. From there, though, as Polley meets a few other survivors (Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer, Jake Weber) and they head to a local mall, this Dawn of the Dead becomes an enclosed Assault on Precinct 13 clone without much resonance or point. Screenwriter James Gunn keeps piling on new characters, none of whom (including a dog) makes much of an impression.

Never mind that recently deceased people shouldn’t be able to run (this aspect seems stolen wholesale from last summer’s 28 Days Later, in which the villains weren’t technically zombies anyway); never mind the baggage we bring to a film bearing the title Dawn of the Dead. In and of itself, the movie becomes repetitive, a one-note affair searching for a second note, sometimes finding one but then losing track of it. The survivors hole up, fending off zombies while attending to conflicts and crises (a trio of armed, cretinous security guards; a pregnant woman). In a rare affecting moment, a cadaverous-looking Matt Frewer turns up as a bitten and infected man who knows he has to be killed; an interesting subplot left out to dry involves a man on the roof of a neighboring building, who picks off zombies and communicates with the survivors via dry-wipe message boards.

Eventually, Dawn ’04 devolves into zombie-attack scenes; some get shot in the head, some don’t, and it’s all filmed in the same headache-inducing step-printing/undercranking style Danny Boyle used for 28 Days Later, with lots of jerky, unscannable movement. The movie drags out two original Dawn stars, Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger, as well as original Dawn make-up artist Tom Savini, for obligatory nothing cameos, though Foree does get to intone, once again, the famous “When there’s no more room in hell” line. Dawn ’04 is commendable in a couple of areas; Jake Weber makes a bright, shrewd protagonist with an undercurrent of ruthlessness — a credible survivor type. And if you stay through the end credits you’ll get grainy video footage more chilling than just about anything in the movie itself (aided considerably by Kyle Cooper’s splatterpunk credits design).

I’m willing to believe that this Dawn was made by fans of the original, who got control of the project (which was going to be made anyway) and tried to stay true to it while creating something new. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for those who feared a true desecration of Romero’s masterwork, this is only a moderately competent zombie flick. If it generates interest in Romero’s film, so much the better, but it’s sad to imagine that newcomers to the Dead films will see the remake first and consider it the definitive version. Despite the remake’s box-office success and unaccountable critical support, though, I have faith that Romero’s film will outlive its own rehash. It’s essentially the difference between a classic driven by vision and a copy driven by dollar signs.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

March 19, 2004

Lacuna Inc., the memory-erasure outfit that furnishes the premise of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, would be of obvious benefit to movie critics. I wouldn’t mind, for instance, forgetting that I ever saw BloodRayne. At the other extreme, it might be fun to eradicate the memories of my favorite films, so that I could experience them fresh all over again. (Which would raise the question of how the 33-year-old me would respond to the Indiana Jones movies — would I love Raiders as much seeing it for the first time today as I did when I was eleven?) On a more serious note, there are experiences and people in our pasts we may wish we could forget. But we are built on the sum of our pasts — our failures as well as our successes, our pain as well as our pleasure.

Eternal Sunshine ponders the meaning and impact of memory, and grounds it in a romantic fable. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who devised the story with Pierre Bismuth and director Michel Gondry, usually specializes in being too hip for the room — or the mainstream room, anyway (see Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). But underneath the hip, heady exterior beats a heart that yearns to understand the heart’s vicissitudes. Your typical Kaufman protagonist is driven round the bend by insecurity versus passion — the head versus the heart.

In Eternal Sunshine, Jim Carrey dials himself down to the ground as Joel Barish, a near-anonymous drone (the script barely specifies what he does for a living) who discovers that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has visited Lacuna and had all her memories of Joel swept away clean. Carrey, photographed to emphasize his haggard grief and stubble, gives a performance of almost unnerving intensity as a man dealing with the notion of having been erased. If a shared memory dies in one person, where does that leave the person who still has it? In a fit of rage and spite, Joel barges into the Lacuna offices and demands the procedure himself. Lacuna’s founder and guru, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), agrees to wipe Joel’s Clementine memories.

The remainder of the movie — occasionally interrupted by scenes with Mierzwiak’s assistants Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), whose duty it is to de-Clementine Joel, and Lacuna secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst), who’s going out with Stan — is given over to Joel’s inner journey through a world of disintegrating memories. I assume that most of Lacuna’s clientele had an easier time with the memory dump than Joel does. For whatever reason, though he’s supposed to be obliviously asleep through the night-long process, Joel — or Joel’s memory-self — begins to regret his decision, and he clings desperately to each memory even as it fades and disassembles around him. He reaches one beautiful memory of a time when things were good with Clementine, and he doesn’t want to let it go. So he and the memory-Clementine become fugitives from the ruthless Lacuna computer as it systematically locates and destroys each bit of the brain that houses a Clementine memory. Within Joel’s brain, the lovers go on the run, hiding inside memories that have nothing to do with Clementine, especially embarrassing or painful buried memories. This conceptual comedy has moments of cerebral horror and despair, like Philip K. Dick adapted by David Cronenberg.

Michel Gondry is an internationally acclaimed music-video director (much like Spike Jonze, who helmed two Kaufman movies). His previous feature, also written by Kaufman, was Human Nature, also rooted in the head-slam between love and science. It was too self-consciously farcical, though — maybe an attempt by two unconventional creators to prove they could make a sloppy physical comedy — and it ended up missing both the brain and the funnybone. As of now, it can be seen as a dry run for Eternal Sunshine, in which Gondry, whose work in Human Nature was rather impersonal, de-slicks his style and serves the material. Gondry’s use of CGI here reminds you of what special effects can do in a movie with real imagination. Some of this stuff, with background objects quietly blinking out or decaying memories of faceless people, is uniquely weird and upsetting.

The motor of the movie is Joel’s quest to preserve Clementine in his memory, so if we don’t agree with him that she’s worth holding onto, the film perishes. But in the vivacious person of Kate Winslet, Clementine is realistically exasperating yet compelling — a joie-de-vivre girl who drives a man nuts yet also pushes him to live more fully. Given time, a non-Lacuna-ized Joel might come to think back on Clementine fondly, or at least acknowledge the ways he grew under her care. But a man rejected and erased is not one to take the long view, and Joel at first jumps at the chance to clear the bitch out of his head. But his mistake, as you notice when you mull it over later, is that he’s erasing Clementine not because he’s tortured by memories of her but because he wants to get back at her.

Dr. Mierzwiak commits to Joel’s procedure anyway, out of guilt and fear — Joel has found out about his own erasure, and that’s not supposed to happen. If word got out, it could mean the destruction of everything Lacuna has accomplished. Mierzwiak thinks he’s doing great work, but he’s only providing a quick fix for pain. Instead of giving people the tools to process hurtful memories and move on, he just whisks the past away with a keystroke. In Joel’s case, the past includes memory of Lacuna. And we also find the sleazy little Patrick — and Mierzwiak himself — capitalizing on memory erasure for their own gain or convenience. It’s mind-rape in reverse — drawing out poison instead of injecting it. But that poison could also be the irritating grain of sand that produces an eventual pearl of wisdom. We remember pain so that we know what hurts; we remember mistakes so that we don’t repeat them.

Eternal Sunshine is a wild tangle of emotion and thought, but one thing it isn’t, particularly, is funny. I don’t mean that as a criticism (although there are some fine, goofy moments from the supporting cast, especially the stoned Ruffalo and Dunst, and Joel’s childhood memory incorporating Clementine as a go-go babysitter is memorably off-the-wall). It was marketed as a zany Jim Carrey movie, of course, with the trailer using quite a bit of loopy footage I looked in vain for in the movie. Carrey’s scream in the trailer (when he’s got the memory-wipe headpiece on) is used as a laugh beat; in the movie it’s distorted in response to a genuinely distressing strobe of disorienting images.

Kaufman and Gondry bring out all the weirdness of the premise, sometimes eliciting disbelieving laughter, sometimes taking us to odd, chilly places (a scene involving the young Joel and a bird is a sad, harsh bit of business). At times, the film hits the notes that The Butterfly Effect haplessly aimed for — the notion that things happen for a reason, and that the past shouldn’t be rewritten even if you can. Since all we have of the past is memory, and since memory makes us who we are, to alter it is to shake the very foundations of self. The movie also effortlessly considers the interconnectedness of memories — if you erase your hated ex, you also wipe out everything you were and did during the time with him or her; the good vanishes along with the bad, and what you’re left with is an artificially induced void.

At the end, and at the beginning (the structure is kind of fancy), we see Joel and Clementine meeting for the first time. The real climax of Eternal Sunshine focuses on how Joel and Clementine — in the real world, not in Joel’s memory-world — deal with what they’ve done. Will they deal with it? Or is the film an infinite loop? Among other things, the movie is an essay on destiny versus will. If two people are meant to be together, the film seems to say, no amount of memory cleansing is going to keep them apart. It’s handled far more provocatively here than in the genial but unimaginative 50 First Dates, which also hinged on memory loss. Charlie Kaufman likes to begin with an outlandish premise and then burrow inside the characters to see how the premise affects them. He deals in the comedy of flawed perception, and it needs just the right rough-hewn directorial touch (George Clooney’s rather slick and icy direction of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ran contrary to Kaufman’s intent) — a first-draft shakiness, which can only be successfully accomplished by the truly gifted. Eternal Sunshine‘s stylistic primitivism works in accord with the script’s sophistication, as if the very film itself, like Joel’s memories, were about to tremble and fade away. This movie joins Kaufman’s best work in its maddening yet satisfying ability to stay with you and hound you for further answers; in that respect, Kaufman’s movies are our own Clementines.

Secret Window

March 12, 2004

As a thriller, David Koepp’s Secret Window is more interesting than thrilling. The story it adapts — Stephen King’s “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” from his Four Past Midnight collection — dealt in psychological suspense with a whiff of the supernatural; Koepp dispenses with the supernatural. King writes what he knows, and what he knows best is writers. Mort Rainey is one of many conflicted and/or haunted scribes in the King portfolio, a successful pulpist whose marriage has gone south and who wakes up one morning in his cabin on the lake to find himself accused of plagiarism. A man in black, John Shooter, claims that Mort stole his story “Secret Window,” though it was first published in 1995 and Shooter says he wrote it in 1997. One would think this fact would settle the argument. But men in black, in King’s fiction, don’t give up that easily.

Since few people would care overmuch about a story concerning a writer who didn’t steal a story, Shooter is turned into a grinning psycho who isn’t above dispatching innocent bystanders or household pets with the nearest screwdriver. As played by John Turturro, Shooter has a gentle, insinuating drawl (he’s from Mississippi), and though we don’t actually see him do anything terribly brutal, Turturro gives him a knife-edge aura of threat, which has served the actor well since he beat a penguin to death in Five Corners. Shooter works well as a nagging doubt in the writer’s mind, either real or imaginary.

Right at the beginning, Mort walks into a hotel room and confronts his wife Amy in bed with another man. That’s about as much animation as we see from Johnny Depp for most of the movie. He plays Mort as a slightly dazed eccentric grateful for writer’s hours — he gets to take naps and eat Doritos instead of working on his new story, which seems to be influenced by Amy’s infidelity. But then “Secret Window,” written in the early days of his relationship with Amy, is also about a cuckold — this one driven to murder. Once again, Depp slouches into a piece of mainstream entertainment and takes every opportunity to amuse himself. Mort’s shambling depression, in Depp’s hands, becomes a witty portrait of dissolution.

Which is not to say Secret Window is worth much more than the price of a rental. Writer/director David Koepp, a screenwriter-for-hire who has directed two interesting but flawed thrillers (The Trigger Effect and Stir of Echoes), starts things off at a brisk clip, and the scenes between Depp and Maria Bello (as his estranged wife) and Timothy Hutton (as her clownish new beau) are well-drawn character comedy. (Mort cringes at the sound of his wife’s voice the way a vampire flinches at a cross.) But there’s too much stale horror crappiness, like a black character (Charles S. Dutton) who’s so obviously in the movie just to be killed that he might as well be called Dick Hallorann, and various misfortunes involving corpse disposal, and scenes with Johnny Depp investigating strange noises at night while holding a flashlight or a poker, which even he can’t redeem.

As for the Twist at the End, all it did for me was make me crave some corn on the cob (that’ll make sense if you ever see it). Secret Window at least spares us King’s long-winded post-game exposition, which reads like a serious challenger to Psycho‘s throne in the category of Unnecessarily Explicit Explanations of Someone’s Neurosis. This writer-director does have serious things on his mind — his Trigger Effect offered some note-perfect episodes of tension emerging entirely out of the characters’ demons. But Koepp isn’t accomplished enough to pull much ambiguity or allegory out of horror-fantasy, it appears. Secret Window feels like the work of one of King’s writer protagonists, Paul Sheldon of Misery, who was famous for romantic pulp but yearned to write something more meaningful. No one’s forcing Koepp to make pulp. No one’s forcing King, either.

Starsky & Hutch

March 5, 2004

tmb_1810_480I didn’t mind seeing Starsky & Hutch; it’s amiable enough, and there are a couple of genuinely hilarious moments. But guys as smart and witty as Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are just wasting themselves on ’70s TV nostalgia. This isn’t a gloriously over-the-top update, like the Charlie’s Angels movies; it was made, we’re told, as if it had been a funnier, unused pilot for the actual TV series, and as if the stars were replaced by David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser. As an excuse to get Stiller and Wilson together again, though, it passes muster. Barely.

My memories of the show are very dim, so I can’t say for sure whether the movie’s characterizations — David Starsky (Stiller) as an anal-retentive stickler for the rules, Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson) as a laid-back slacker who isn’t above swiping pocket money from a corpse — are true to the source. It’s certain, though, that Wilson and particularly Stiller are cast utterly to type here; they’re essentially playing templates of themselves. If you like Stiller’s neurotic control-freak shtick (to which he brought some depth and pathos in The Royal Tenenbaums) and Wilson’s drawling aw-shucks routine (ditto),Starsky & Hutch gives you that. But, having seen Stiller and Wilson stretch in little-seen dramas (Permanent Midnight and The Minus Man, respectively), I know they’re slumming here.

Which isn’t a huge sin, considering the pleasantly mediocre comedy they’re in. Directed by Todd Phillips, who made the instant-cult raunch comedies Road Trip and Old School, the film sometimes seems on the verge of outgrowing its PG-13 rating; the moments people will talk about for weeks are in short supply here, though I laughed heartily at the outcome of a meeting between the cops and an imprisoned freak played by Will Ferrell, and there’s some classic awestruck expressions on Stiller and especially Wilson in the presence of a blithely naked college cheerleader. The guys also get it on with two other randy cheerleaders (Carmen Electra and Amy Smart), who also get it on with each other, and Starsky and Hutch themselves have enough homoerotic moments to fuel reams of fangirl slash fiction (if these guys have fangirls).

The official villain is Vince Vaughn, doing his standard yeah-whatever routine as a drug dealer who’s figured out how to make cocaine that’s safe from drug-sniffing dogs. He never gets a real showcase scene, though, and Juliette Lewis is sadly wasted as his bubbly girlfriend (while Molly Sims, as his wife, is hardly in the movie). At his daughter’s bat mitzvah, Vaughn launches into a cringe-inducing ballad, but is interrupted by Starsky and Hutch; the scene would’ve been funnier if he’d been allowed to continue. What follows, as his daughter gets a double surprise for her birthday, might’ve been good if the trailer hadn’t spoiled it.

Unlike Charlie’s Angels, which came out of Drew Barrymore’s desire to do a megabucks grrl-power adventure that teenage girls could enjoy, Starsky & Hutch really has no reason for being other than smirking at the ’70s and at the TV show. (I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Snoop Dogg as the new Huggy Bear; that’s because he doesn’t bring anything fresh. Two of Huggy’s gunmen, swapping arcane bits of data about Luxembourg, get more laughs.) I shudder to think what the movie would’ve been like without Stiller and Wilson. At the end, David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser are schlepped out for a cameo, looking much the worse for wear (Soul is nearly unrecognizable), and the moment feels uncomfortably as if the movie is laughing at them. At the very least, contrasting the two old-timers, who never quite made it after the show ended (Glaser has directed some films, the most memorable being The Running Man, which isn’t saying much), with the young, handsome, far more successful Stiller and Wilson has a whiff of arrogance, as if the entirety of the TV series were a rough draft for Stiller and Wilson’s goof. Starsky & Hutch was the career peak for Soul and Glaser; it won’t be for Stiller and Wilson, one hopes.