Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The shabby Dumb And Dumber To has us thinking about better films starring famous comedy duos.
Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have appeared together in over half a dozen films, but despite an undeniable chemistry, only one of their projects really qualifies as a full-fledged buddy comedy: the 2004 Todd Phillips redo of Starsky & Hutch. (Zoolander almost counts, but Wilson really has more of a supporting role.) On its most basic level, it’s just another run-through of an old TV show in quotation marks. But the sheer amount of Stiller-Wilson bickering and bonding makes it a fine document of their on-screen partnership.
After a brief prologue, the movie wastes little time pairing the uptight and by-the-book David Starsky (Stiller) with the more lax Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson). The simplicity of the set up keeps the signature Phillips sloppiness from interfering, and even gives him a rare, proper outlet for his much-vaunted sense of style: Unlike with the handsome but largely pointless widescreen compositions of the Hangover series, here Phillips uses his camera to tell jokes and spoof the machinations of old cop shows.
He also leaves Stiller and Wilson plenty of leeway to reshape the characters so they match their respective personas. In general, the Stiller-Wilson dynamic escalates familiar types into original territory: Stiller’s uptightness metastasizes into aggression while Wilson’s jerkiness is wrapped in such laid-back charm that he seems just shy of oblivious to his own ego. Starsky & Hutch goes along with this escalation, imagining an ultra-efficient super-cop as a Stiller-style angry nerd (even his love for his badass car comes across more like self-inflicted OCD) and his fun-loving partner as borderline criminal. The movie only has a few sustained set pieces, but it’s consistently funny, particularly when Stiller and Wilson pause to parse typical cop-show chatter like nicknames, tough talk, and disguises. On that last point, the contrast between Starsky’s fully developed undercover “character” and Hutch’s inability to formulate his own offers some meta-commentary on differing approaches to comedy.
A few remnants of the Phillips approach to comedy, meanwhile, remain sadly visible. In one supposedly comic scene, the partners drool over hot cheerleaders (Ha?); Phillips would rather hire Carmen Electra to act in a movie than write a substantial role fit for a female comedian. But Stiller and Wilson use their charisma to soften his misanthropy. For a couple of hours, revisiting an old cop show actually seems like an appealing lark.
Availability: Starsky & Hutch is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services.