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‘Starsky & Hutch’ is nostalgic fun

Wilson and Stiller team up in this re-telling of the classic ’70s show. By John Hartl

The Carpenters are inescapable on the radio, “Saturday Night Fever” is inspiring disco contests, and the television special, “Free to Be...You and Me,” seems to define the era.

It’s the 1970s, when Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” and such outrageous cop-buddy movies as “Freebie and the Bean” made their debuts — and another cop-buddy show, “Starsky & Hutch,” became ABC-TV’s ratings salvation.

Todd Phillips’ amiable if dispensable wide-screen rehash of “Starsky & Hutch,” starring Ben Stiller as uptight Dave Starsky and Owen Wilson as his slacker partner, Ken Hutchinson, pays tribute to all of this and more. Elements of the plot are borrowed from the series’ 1975 pilot (a big-time criminal is out to kill them), Snoop Dogg plays their flamboyant street informer (a role previously played by Antonio Fargas), and the homoerotic subtext is even harder to miss.

Wilson’s ultra-laidback Hutch even kisses Starsky to calm him down, and their boss (Fred Williamson) asks Hutch “why are you touching him?” When they wear especially skimpy towels at the gym, they’re kiddingly branded as Sonny and Cher by rougher cops. When they try to get information from a kinky gay prisoner (Will Ferrell), he bargains and persuades them to do a striptease, beginning with a glimpse of Hutch’s belly button.

Not that anything ever comes of this. Indeed, just to make sure we don’t get the wrong impression, Phillips and his co-writers introduce a scene in which Starsky and especially Hutch are undone by the sight of a naked female athlete they interview in a locker room. Hutch even finds himself in a cocaine-fueled three-way with a couple of cheerleaders, though most of this is left to the PG-13 imagination.

As long as Stiller and Wilson are kidding around with their roles, the new “Starsky & Hutch” is harmless nostalgic fun. What drags the film down are the formulaic thriller aspects, involving a ruthless drug dealer (Vince Vaughn), his decorative mistress (Juliette Lewis) and his worried assistant (Jason Bateman).

Nothing about these characters is remotely memorable, and there’s little the actors can do to suggest otherwise. Bateman and Vaughn do try to wriggle out of the restrictions imposed on their roles, but if you’re wondering whatever happened to one-time Oscar nominee Lewis (“Cape Fear”), this movie provides no answer.

Phillips, who directed “Road Trip” and “Old School,” is clearly partial to the comedy scenes. Ferrell is a knockout, funnier and wilder than he was in “Elf,” even if the character he plays comes awfully close to a mincing stereotype. Sly and silly, Snoop Dogg makes the most of the surprises built into his role.

As Wilson proved last month with “The Big Bounce,” he’s just about irresistible in roles like this one. He may not attempt to duplicate David Soul’s less flakey work in the 1970s series, just as Stiller doesn’t try to match Paul Michael Glaser’s smarter, more temperamental Starsky. But they work quite well together, quickly establishing a connection without which the film might collapse. Fans of the original should be especially gratified by their final scene.