RIORI Vol 3, Installment 81: Greg Mattola’s “Paul” (2010)



The Players…

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, (and the endless voice of) Seth Rogen, with Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, David Koechner, Jane Lynch, John Carroll Lynch, Blythe Dinner, Jeffery Tambor and Sigourney Weaver.


The Story…

A pair of dyed-in-wool British sci-fi geeks are taking holiday in the US southwest. Not just for attendance at the big deal Comic-Con, but also to scope out historic UFO sightings in the vast wilderness.

They get more than they bargain for.

Chugging along in their RV late at night on the highway they narrowly avoid a serious car crash. Feeling their civic duty to check on the driver, they’re beyond shocked to discover a for real alien behind the wheel.

Some smelling salts later, they learn his name is Paul, and he needs their help getting home.

It turns out for our trio, “home” is a relative term.


The Rant…

A while back I covered Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Great And Powerful, a rompy prequel to the classic Victor Fleming opus, the third (and best) cinematic interpretation of L Frank Baum’s opus, The Wizard Of Oz. I also went on record that I was never keen to fantasy. Wasn’t interested in Tolkien’s film adaptations. Never saw (nor read) any of the Harry Potter series. Never even was barely curious about watching (or reading) Game Of Thrones. Beyond Fleming’s idea of Oz, the closest thing to fantasy films I ever dug was…well, Oz, The Great And Powerful. Mila Kunis made for a cool Wicked Witch Of The West. As well as Meg Griffin, just to play to the fanboys.

Speaking of fanboys, despite being meh on fantasy I’m big on science fiction. Last time I waxed nostalgic on being exposed to Ridley Scott’s signature flicks, namely Alien and Blade Runner. Sci-fi films in the barest sense. Sure, both flicks took place in the future, where malign tech and nasty, slobbering xenomorphs reigned supreme. I also spoke of my young poisoning of the mind catching both Star Wars: A New Hope and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial in the theater around age six.

However neither of those pairings really stuck. They piqued my interest, sure, about “out there, somewhere.” But the sci-fi gateway drug was (surprise) Star Trek. That and a few Arthur C Clarke books and Time magazine’s compendium of how the universe worked. For sure. Bless your local library. And put down the damned smartphone.

Yeah. Trek. A giver. I remember the very time I got into it. I was 14, and rolling on the couch like a desiccated hot dog back and forth on the lukewarm washboard at your local Sheetz. I had my wisdom teeth impacted, and my jaw felt like a strained jack holding up a Mack truck. I all I could eat was yogurt and all I could do was churn on the couch and watch TV. It sucked.

Cold compact pressed against my mandible, I surrendered to the idiot box. Didn’t want to read or listen to music. The NES controller grew dusty. The remote was sticky in my mitt (when I wasn’t groaning rubbing my on fire jaw) as I channel surfed. Saw the usual “Disney Afternoon;” (yes, I was in high school and still watching cartoons. I had yet to experience the oys and joys of p*ssy and beer. We could both do worse). I was a fan of the wry DuckTales, the silly Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and the very good superhero send-up Darkwing Duck. These pastiches ran from 3 PM to 5, where after the syndicated series’ reruns rerun.

Cutting to the chase, at clear 5 every afternoon the local cable affiliate aired both the previous and recent episodes of Star Trek: The Generation starring that lovable dork from PBS’ Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton. More on that soon.

Sooner than later, I had idly caught an ep of TNG once and saw big bro Levar wearing a golden hair clip across his eyes, wearing tight red pajamas scouring the deck of a damaged starship deck.

The hell? But don’t take my word for it. Ha.

Even at 14 I also dug Reading Rainbow. Our host Levar was a piece of work, promoting literacy on PBS. He came across, convincingly, as the cool older brother who knew stuff. Seeing him with a banana clip over his face made me ask “What the crap?” So with aching missing teeth, I stayed tuned in after Darkwing ended. And gradually the scales fell from my eyes.

I enjoyed the drama. I liked the dialogue. I dug the character interplay. The Enterprise-D looked like a mall in space. Worf’s ever evolving face was funny. I slowly got hooked. Darkwing what?

The affiliate was burning through the fourth season at the time during the week I learned. Saturday evening was last week’s ep followed by the latest installment. I punished my parents before the big screen to tolerate my new addiction before Saturday primetime. And a small win there. Once Paul Sorvino was a guest star on a TNG so even my stalwart Dad set the remote down for that episode.

I swiftly nabbed every episode I could nab. The older sh*t I rented from my local library (remember the 20th Century?) TNG became a fast addiction. I later checked out the original series to compare notes. The drama/humor/intrigue dynamic failed to falter. I was seriously hooked. Not a bad way to go for a stone cold sci-fi fanboy. Now stone cold.

So what else to do, when one is a Trekkie, anathema to the opposite sex, hanging out after school with all-female friends who loved to re-watch Aliens over and over who had no interest in my flaccid…that.

Star Trek-Con!

We went to a handful back in the day, right outside Philly. My friend’s dad was patient in driving us out to the convo (we all had lisences, but no car. How we suffered), dropped us all off at the convention center and spun back to the homeland ASAP. Probably didn’t want to get contaminated. He suffered our endless afternoons carved into the latest MST3K installment enough. He hated tribbles, I guess.

So we were let loose at the Trek convention. It was cool. Really. I mean if you were into sci-fi in all its guises—be it movies, TV, comics or related curios—the whole Trek theme fell by the wayside. Lots of booths with their hawkers peddling the above goodies, not unlike a malign, stellar flea market akin to a space opera wall of a TGIFriday’s shot through a Waring blender.

It was a circus. Folks dressed as out of shape Klingons. Folks dressed as the forceable Borg (lots of dead aquarium paraphernalia put to good use there). Folks dressed as Starfleet Acadamy recruits who could never pass the physical. Also writers, artists, actors earning some beans schilling their former stage and/or screen glories.

And the stars. The real reason why we came.

Consider this. There have been TV shows that have ran far longer than Trek in all its iterations. The original Law & Order. The Simpsons. Even Gunsmoke, before God. MASH still maintains the highest ratings for its finale pales in comparison to the mere three seasons the original Trek graced the grey screen, and us Trekkers get our conventions. It is to wonder.

Three stories from the front, in degrees of artistic appreciation of sci-fi openness that Trek allowed me. From up to down.

First: Sir Patrick Stewart. Capt Picard himself. He wasn’t knighted then, but a was bright light for us dorks. He was the primary guest on the list that day. We all sat in attendance, and Stewart let most of the Trek questions roll off his back.

Stewart suffered our endless TNG questions well enough. The rest of the time he promoted his one-man show of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, a big deal thing back in the day, prob’ cuz it was very un-Trek and most likely what the man needed as a prophylactic to chatting with Number One for the umpeenth about what to do with the dang communication breakdowns with the pesky Romulans.

But Stewart was a stage actor first, born and bred. I recalled when I accidentally saw I, Claudius on PBS (was probably searching for the latest Reading Rainbow installment). I took note of the actor playing Sejanus. That voice. Now the body attached to the voice was voicing to all us geeks. I smelled an opportunity, perhaps once in a parsec. I raised my hand and Stewart called me out.

“Yes, young man?”

“Mr Stewart, I understand you were a student of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Bard never wrote science fiction. I don’t think there was any context at the time—

(laughs from the acne-ridden peanut gallery)

—however, I seen you on TNG for years and often wondered how the Shakespearean Method has been imprinted on your Picard character. It can’t be denied the method, but the setting, the scenes on TNG don’t really permit Shakespeare. Drama, yes, but also this context makes me curious. What permitted Sejanus to wear the Captain’s uniform? And to what end?”

(boos from the zits)

Stewart set the mike at his hip and snickered. He raised the thing back up to his lips:

“Young man, you do know where you are right now, correct?”

I didn’t falter. “Yes. We’re here at a Star Trek convention appreciating your appearance. But also it’s also my opportunity to sweat a respected Shakespearean actor to how he’s applied his craft to a space opera, co-starring a guy who pushed books and had the hair clip at the wrong end.”

(groans)

Stewart giggled, then grinned, “Son, I’m glad you asked me that!”

And he went into a tear about his time with the Theatre, TNG never really hammered on. I was glad. My fellow dorks weren’t. C’mon, if you were alone in a looked room with your favorite writer, would you really ask about how they held a pencil? Doubts even here.

The next late of this trilogy isn’t mine, but too sweet a treat to deny you bored readers. Still makes me smile.

An old roomie of mine was a Trekkie, and once made his pilgrimage to Mecca. Mr Banana Clip Levar Burton was a guest. Due to contractual obligations my crafty friend heard he wasn’t permitted to sign autographs. Pishaw. My buddy knew the secret knock. He cornered Burton after he left the bathroom and leapt on him.

“Mr Burton, can I have your autograph?

He waved his hands. “I’m not allowed to give out autographs, sorry.”

“Well, could you sign this?”

My friend waggled a book in front of Burton. A Reading Rainbow book.

Burton grinned, snatched the picture book from him and said “Gimme that. What’s your name?” He pulled a pen out of nowhere.

“…Lucas.”

Burton scrawled on the cover page: To my friend Lucas, keep on reading. Your friend, Levar Burton.”

Cool right? Better than catching the pick after Keef’s third encore solo.

And finally, the reason why we sci-fi morons congregate the way we do. For the big game.

My last tale hems the pants of my convention days. High school was ending and assumed maturity of going to college after summer. One last night flight. That and another jillion Aliens viewings waiting. You can take the gorilla out of the jungle, but…

We all went, me and my trio of proto-Ani Difranco friends. It was sovereign this time. We’d already seen the sights at the convo a dozen times over. Same hotel, same sh*t. There were only so many lead soldier Geordis for sale one could pore over. This time it wasn’t about the goods. It was the goods.

The guest of honor was Leonard “Mr Spock” Nimoy. We were thrilled. Doy.

The man had done it all. An old hand. Nimoy was a star of stage, screen, photography, writing, music (for good or ill), directing and all things logical. When he took the mic—shocker—standing O. It was funny. For decades we watched Nimoy’s exploits on TV and later on the big screen. We scrutinized every twitch of the eyebrow or ear. We ingested his lines. We saw him get McCoy’s goat regularly.

We never saw him smile. Let alone laugh.

Like I said, the guy was an old pro, and not just being an actor. He had been pounding the beat at Trek convos since their inception. Again, an old hand, and he had us all in the palm of his.

He came well prepared. He had a PowerPoint presentation, flicking through outtakes of TOS, explaining the minutiae of how the show was put together. We were enraptured. Some were drooling.

The cherry on the sundae was how Nimoy as Spock invented the Vulcan salute. “Live long and prosper” and all that jazz. The screenshots he presented were from an episode where Spock returned to Vulcan with his human buddies Kirk and McCoy as witnesses to some ancient Vulcanian rite of passage. There was a quick scene of Spock addressing the “queen” with the salute. We well knew the episode. It was etched in our Clearasil-scarred brains.

Nimoy paused the scene and calmly explained the scene and the gesture all we Trekkies do rather than shake hands with one another’s sweaty, mealy palms. The Vulcan salute’s origin. It’s a cool story, really. Even if your not a Trekker. Pull up a seat.

When Nimoy was a kid in Brooklyn, he hailed from an orthodox Jewish family. Missing temple on Saturday was verboten. It was Talmudic law. Best not piss the Big Guy off. Like most Christian practices, there was a benediction at the end of the service. May God bless you and keep you and so on. The Benediction usually occurs at the narthex, where the prelate and acolytes praise the congregation for their audience. JC approved.

The Jews have something similar, but at the front of the altar. Nimoy and his father knew the routine. Close your eyes, kneel, pray and don’t open your eyes. We’re talking don’t look, Marion.

Of course Nimoy did. He said he was six. Seemed logical at the time.

He witnessed the cantor with armed outstretched and speaking is Hebrew. His hands were formed in the shape of a familiar alien greeting, thumb and fingers separated in the middle of the palms. According to Nimoy, the gesture was a representation of the Hebrew character shin, which is supposed to represent a wish for a fruitful life, and also practice actions that would help others find their way.

Sound familiar? Was to us nerds. Nimoy co-opted the gesture and meaning for the Vulcanian salute. “Live long and prosper.”

All of us in the enraptured audience in unison went, “Ohhhhh. Okay.” Grins all around.

Cool Hand Spock suffered our questions well, with much patience and humor. I reiterate, guy was an old pro. Talked about goofing around on the set. What a card Shatner was, always pranking him. And DeForest “Bones” Kelley was really a sweetheart, miles away from cantankerous Dr McCoy. It was revealing. Not just hearing about how the sausage was made, but how communal the cast was. A family. Shat, Bones and Nimoy were buddies as well as co-workers. So were the rest of the cast of TOS.

It was not unlike us Trekkies. Most strangers to be sure, but not unlike rowdy Philadelphia “Fly Eagles Fly” football fans, vintage vinyl collectors and online gamers. It’s a community, often congregating in their chosen forums to revel and high-five over their culty, pet hobbies. It enables camaraderie that, let’s face it, outsiders wouldn’t “get.”

I believe that is the appeal of both Star Trek cons and Birds’ tailgating alike. Like-minded folks immersing themselves in their fetish, where strange, disparate weirdoes can make friends. Among others who “get it.”

Like with sci-fi cons, fast friendships can be formed, forged in the arcana of Star Trek, Warhammer and the rioting that followed the Cubs winning the series. Bonds formed with people who get it, and snubbing the poor schlubs that don’t. Their loss. Resistance is futile.

Well okay, one more: a prime example of this is a tale from one of my bar buddies, also a Trek enthusiast. He attended a con where James “Scotty” Doohan was the guest of honor. He was in ill-health, kinda dinged in the head, recovering from a stroke (which left him speechless. Literally) and stuck in a wheelchair. There was a lightyear long queue for getting his autograph. According to my bud, the stroke rendered his penmanship a bit wobbly. Read: inscrutable.

My pal patiently waited in line. He noticed that Doohan could barely hold his Sharpie and basically scrawled a blur across the fanboys well-worn copies of Mr Scott’s Guide To The Enterprise. My friend wasn’t interested in scribblings. He wanted to chat with The Man.

His turn came and with no pretense he greeted him in a tone that could wake the lame and the halt (which was kinda the point):

“Jimmy! Lookin’ good! Hey, what do ya say we ditch this joint? Got a great bar upstairs, How ’bout we do some shots of whisky?”

Doohan’s droopy face lightened up. Grinning, he craned his head up to look at his daughter who was escorting him and smiled. She shook her head no. Scotty frowned.

“That’s okay, Jimmy. When yer kid has to hit the head we can skeedadle!”

Again the grin, again the frown.

“Anyway, heard you were signing stuff?” He held out a well-worn VHS jacket of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Doohan got the role on TOS based on his rep for being a skilled voice actor. Doohan was Scotty as well as Arex as well as all the ancillary voices voices on both series.

“Do me the honor?”

Smiles again. Doohan raised a shaky, outstretched hand and accepted the case. He held the Sharpie in both hands and slowly, carefully wrote on it in very clean script, “For my friend, George.” Clear as a sunny day. Too bad shots didn’t later ensue in celebration. A few months later Doohan passed away, but my bud has his “real” autograph to remember him by.

That’s kind of family feeling Trek cons create. As do tailgates and the SXSW festival. We get it. And so sorry if you don’t and then scoff. Your loss.

So now, let’s fall down the sci-fi geek wormhole with a pair of unwitting pals accidentally finding their “thing” out in the real world.

Well, “surreal” world might be a more apt description…


Two sci-fi geeks in blood from Britain, Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost, respectively) take holiday to attend a big deal Comic-Con on the West Coast (and we ain’t talking Wales here). But that’s just the cherry on the sundae. They’ve rented an RV for a road trip across the American southwest to check out all the alleged alien activity over the past century (and we ain’t talking rogue migrants here).

When their boat gets all waylaid near Nevada’s forbidden Area 51 by what first appears to be a DUI driver, well there goes the voyage for truth and fun. Until the driver scrabbles out of the scrub and introduces himself.

His name is Paul (Rogen).

He’s a Grey, a casual term for a space alien. From outer space. Outer. Alien. The contact of is the holy grail for these two twits.

He needs help getting home, not to mention sanctuary from the gun happy agents who need to get him back to the lab.

(And we ain’t talking Alexa home here. We’re talking “phone…” Oh, you get it, tosser.)


I’ve read that when it comes to very Albion, very dry comedy Simon Pegg (also Scotty!) and Nick Frost can do no wrong. From Shaun Of The Dead to Hot Fuzz, they are Britain’s answer to a Millenial Laurel and Hardy. Us moviegoers can’t wait to see what another fine mess they get themselves into.

After seeing Paul I think the secret to their success is staying in the UK. Their rapport may be regarded as a novelty to us Yanks. But take these two goofs across The Pond and set up camp in Vegas? Erm.

Make no mistake, Pegg paired with Frost is very funny. But taking them out of English context render them cannon fodder. Namely, ain’t these limeys cute? Especially in the Nevada desert? Does England have a desert? Haw haw.

That speaks that their’s is a very palpable awkwardness for our wonder twins hamming it up as strangers in a strange land. That schtick is like a sliver or popcorn wedged in one’s gums. Pegg and Frost don’t belong in America, let alone the community their fave sci-fi con environments provide sanctuary from the ugly, real world. It’s kind of a cheap joke, fish out of water and all that implies. It’s been done before, and done better.

To the point, Pegg and Frost are poorly fit for Paul. Their interplay is based more on finger-pointing than hands across bellies. It’s kinda mean. And redolent of the unfun stereotypes that fanboy geekiness invites. The “innocents abroad” gig only goes so far.

That’s really the shame of Paul. It’s rather one note when there was comedy gold to mine. Instead we get sci-fi geekdom in its stereotypical bad light (which ain’t hard come to think of it), drug jokes and sh*tty chemistry between all the Yank players; save Bateman (and surprisingly not Weaver), Paul suffers what I’ll call “joke cramming.” Namely, there are so many funny cast members all pitted against each other to be the funniest. It plays like a fridge door with way to much elemenary school art: hard to compare, but necessary completeing the whole. Whatever that is. Try to get a nine year old to cough up her postmodern muse, which is likely a melding of Care Bares and Melanie Martinez. In short, Paul tries to be cohesive, but the kid ate up all the paste.

Beyond Pegg and Frost, Paul does have a great, eclectic cast. It’s too bad they all were reading different scripts (which I suspect was mostly improv). Our two blokes, despite being the stars, are quite underused. They’re both underused, especially in light of the background rogue’s gallery backing up the story. Sorta more on that later.

I think the lick of salt you take with Paul is that it’s kinda like a funny X-Files/ET send up. Maybe outright parody. However the thing about parodies is that they are deliberate send ups of war horse movie tropes. Think Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and the rest of Mel Brooks’ CV. Not to mention the Police Squad movies, the Airplane! movies and practically the entirety of the ZAZ movies (save Ghost, which later was sweet parody fodder in other parodies, like The Naked Gun 2 1/2. Hey, wait a minute). Parodies are winking and let audiences in on the joke. Bad parodies resort to Family Guy-esque non-stop pop culture name dropping to blur the corners. If parodies require Google, they’re lame. It’s one thing to be let in on the joke. It’s another to be overloaded and force to surrender to a critical mass. Keyword being “critical.”

Paul tries to be sweeping in skewering anything and everything sci-fi geek/classic sci-fi film it’s like shopping at a flea market for used electrical sh*t. It plays like this:

“Hey look! A used Sega Saturn! For just a buck!”

“…There’s bullet holes in it.”

“No big! Previous owner musta got pissed at f*cking up nights Into Dreams too much.”

“Those look like cordite burns.”

“Ah, it’s a buck. I’ll take it home, clean it up and we’ll be in PTO land faster than you can call 911!”

Then you call 911 as your mancave descends into the Seventh Level. All that wasted beer. Tsk tsk.

In other words, this flick could’ve been great. A real find. Then it leaves you dumb. And hard to figure if that was intentional. That’s the trouble with poor parodies, you eventually can’t differentiate the inside jokes from the outside, name-dropping ones. It’s gets boring. As Steve Martin claimed: comedy is not pretty. True, but it should defiantly bore as Paul did for me.

We’re sorta get into the above now. I keep my promises.

At its core, Paul is a buddy/road trip comedy. Almost always a good thing to waste time with. Think Rush Hour, Rain Man and all those classic team-ups with Bob and Bing. The key to such flicks are surefire gold chemistry between the leads. Or course Pegg and Frost have that spark, duh. However the supporting cast has a vital purpose also: to bounce off our bumbling heroes. Despite the awesome supporting cast bombarding Pegg and Frost with limitless comedy fodder, our limey dolts are too passive. Way too passive. They only react to the inanity, not respond. Pegg and Frost made their mark in zany comedy by interacting with absurdity that plagues them (e.g.: remember the record throwing scene in Shaun Of The Dead? Yeah, like that). In Paul, they are the records, bombarded with insanity and Frost just sits in the RV’s passenger seat while Pegg traipses off to the bathroom. Sorry, I meant loo.

I understand that Paul is another frenetic comedy directed by Mattola, but there stinks of a of rehashed Superbad schtick lurking beneath the Area 51 gags. The buddy comedy. A quest to complete. Jon Hader as a “cop.” What worked once doesn’t always work again, and Superbad is one of the wifey’s fave films. I could not in all honesty suggest we watch Paul together. There’d be too many sci-fi, pop culture refs to punch up. And down the toilet we go.

I feel the ultimate fault in Paul‘s execution is a lot of stilted dialogue. Not what is said, per se but how it’s delivered. Senta, RinaldiSenta. Letting Rogen run his motormouth for 90 minutes does not automatically equal funny. We need some time to breathe. Instead we choke on the bullet-time gags about drugs, sex, sexy drugs and drugging Kristen Wiig with too much truth (there was a gag that could’ve gained traction. Instead it fell into a short-bus version of Tyson’s Cosmos. Coulda worked).

That’s a pretty apt way to send off Paul: it could’ve worked. There were some bright spots, like Weaver winkingly chewing scenery in the final act. Or Tambor’s wry cameos. Of the sense of belonging between our fanboy/hereos in the final scene to share. Hell, even the heartwarmer (kindly slower scene) between Paul and Danner. Everything else was shot through like poop through a goose. Too much pant pant. You gotta lay off the relentless silly in order to take time to giggle. And taking time to see a Grey suck REDACTED don’t count. Sorry.

Based against those bright spots, there was still a lot of wasted potential with Paul. Was it funny? Sure, it fits and starts. Were Pegg and Frost at the top of their game? Nope. And nope. Was the cast awesome? Approaching. Did Paul require, nay, demand pop-culture name-dropping to push the plot along? Uh-huh.

It was a mish-mash of one-liners, winking jokes, tired Hollywood tropes whipped up in a Cuisinart? You just won a prize. Still—believe it or not—I couldn’t bring myself to dislike it. Call it my soft spot for the SF cons of youth. Or Frost and Pegg, together again. Or that shared guilty pleasure sense of being one with the cosmos reveling in one’s culty fetish, and the welcoming outstretched arms from fellow freaks.

I guess my real, buried soft spot for Paul was the (admittedly flawed) tribute to guys like Clive and Graeme. Brothers in arms. Loving tales about illicit autographs, contraband booze just out of reach (when one could really need it) and a venerable Shakespean actor suprised and then respecting an honest question.

Sh*t like that never seems to happen watching The Simpsons. Or Firefly.

Or watching reruns of Black Books.

What? Too obscure? No more than debating the life-saving value of Prince’s Batman soundtrack.

Geek.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. I didn’t hate Paul, but I was sorely let down. Still, there were enough winks to keep me smiling and watching. Only logical I gave it a “mild.”


Stray Observations…

  • Are comic-cons really like this? Yes, yes they are.
  • “Pizza!”
  • Cute Raiders nod.
  • “You know you’re grown men, right?”
  • Who’d’ve thought Bateman could ever have such a great flat affect?
  • “Get away from her, you bitch!” A very meta ha!
  • Is this whole flick a tourist trap? Ha!
  • “Seems rather fitting.”

Next Installment…

Cate Blanchette must reunite with Tommy Lee Jones in an uneasy alliance in order to find The Missing  family they both have lost.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 76: Todd Phillips’ “Starsky And Hutch” (2004)



The Players…

Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughan, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg, with Juliette Lewis, Carmen Elektra, Amy Smart, Chris Penn, Matt Walsh, Fred Williamson and Will Farrell.


The Story…

Way too uptight David Starsky and way too laid-back Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson are paired up for the first time as undercover cops. In order to get to the bottom of a cocaine ring in Bay City the new partners must overcome their differences and get to detectin’ rather than bickering over the small stuff.

Like who gets to drive and who has the cooler, non-permed ‘do.


The Rant…

Finally. RIORI is dissecting a classic Hollywood trope: the buddy cop movie!

This formula has been both revered and reviled. The latter sadly more often than the former. Why sadly? ‘Cause the whole buddy cop gimmick invites action, comedy, mystery, the occasional side boob and often lotsa things going ker-boom. These films are usually reserved for the summer season, when audiences brains are too dinged by the heat to make sense of the Fandango app on their iPhones. Me just want ha-ha, boom and boom. Ha-ha.

I’m not bagging on these kinds of dumb fun in the theatre. And no, not that kind; keep it clean for now. I may approach almost serious here, which is kinda dumb considering this week’s installment. But when I think quick dumb fun, some wacky stunts and precious little moral fiber attached to either, gimme a buddy cop flick. Think about it. Summer movie bubblegum? Sex, shooting and snickers. Besides Twizzlers, a bucket of popcorn the size of a Basset hound and soda large enough to swim in, what more could one want for mindless entertainment? Even Skyrim requires thought and planning, so there you go.

So how come such a simple formula goes south more often than barges down the Mississippi? I think it happens when the directors and scenarists try to get too clever. Adding seemingly needless details and twists to a relatively straight line regarding plot, no matter how razor thin. Over arching romantic threads, surprise reveals like the hero is the bad guy and/or political intrigue. Sure, such devices might enhance the plot some, but I feel that the best kind of buddy cop flicks steer relatively clear of such tricks. Keeping in mind my criteria above, we ain’t talking auteur theory here. We mustn’t. Think too much about what you’re watching with a BC flick and it’s game over, man. Twizzler avalanche. Bummer. While you picking up the debris, you missed the side boob.

Too clever, mind you. All things being equal, the sex and shooting alone don’t make a decent, memorable BC movie. And yes, even though most are designed to be disposable entertainment, the real good buddy cops flicks have to have at least one trick that sticks, like that stubborn kernel jammed in your molars. Just keep it simple, be it snappy dialogue (essential, actually), rough and ready heroes who make you laugh (also necessary) and a wild mystery to solve with maverick moves (raison d’etre). That something special, almost ineffable quality that raises dumb fun into really dumb fun. Don’t muddy the waters with…f*cking anything. We wanna hear Axel’s donkey chuckle, thank you very much.

Examples of the decent BC formula are myriad, but also few and far between. A few notable ones include the original Bad Boys, the movie that officially launched Micheal Bay’s directorial career (a dubious honor at best) and Will Smith’s movie career (just as dubious). The goofball Tango & Cash, shameless in its goofballery. 48 Hours, though technically not a buddy cop flick since Eddie Murphy was a con, but the thing followed the paradigm, as did mostly solo Murphy in the manic Beverly Hills Cop (best to remember Taggert and Rosewood now). The sleeper Stakeout featuring Richard Dreyfuss at his most ridiculous and Aidan Quinn at his most scary. The underrated but eventually enjoyable Running Scared with wiseacre detectives Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal (at his most snarky) following the title’s advice regarding the vile druglord Jimmy Smits (his best role IMHO. Fanboy here? Yep. Have a Twizzler) on their tails. There are many other BC goodies hither and yon. Key there is reveling in the funny.

Speaking of Running Scared one could regard that movie as a dry run for the ur-buddy cop flick Lethal Weapon. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, you’ve never heard of the 1980s either. You might have missed something. If that’s the case, let me enlighten you dear reader and perhaps the curious reading the anti-art of the BC flick. It follows the classic formula. Some may argue it defined it. I do.

For the uniformed part of y’all—those born post-1990, when BC films started to creep towards respectability (I’m looking at you, The Hard Way)—the first installment of the seemingly endless Lethal Weapon franchise (no word of a reboot barring the TV show yet, but after the recent RoboCop travesty hold on hope) set the blueprint for all BC movies, past and future. Our mismatched heroes were played by the unhinged, manic Mel Gibson (a full two decades before the real unhinged, manic Gibson surfaced) paired against serious, family man Danny Glover (no signs of mania there. Or now). The plotting of their case is straightforward: busting a drug ring. Classic, reliable, now often over/misused. Beverly Hills Cop covered this, as did Running Scared and even the warped sci-fi BC pastiche Alien Nation, featuring Fredo and Inigo Montoya. Really. Wasn’t bad either.

Weapon‘s basic premise laid the plans for and eventually established how a good, satisfying BC movie should tick. Namely, that snappy dialogue, kooky stunts, car chases, a tough case to crack, quotable quips (“I’m too old for this sh*t”) and a scary villain (Gary Busey at his most menacing). All killer, no filler. So to speak. And it’s been ripped off for decades, including its sequels of diminishing returns.

But it worked. Despite all its overall mundanity Weapon worked. Even with its first sequel somewhat, that set up a rule about action sequels: bigger, faster, more. More laughs, more ker-booms, upping isolated troubles to correct to aiming overseas; apartheid was a hot topic when the second film emerged, so why not make the evil money launderers baddies arrogant, white Afrikaaners? Hey, let’s toss Joe Pesci into the mix as the motormouthed comic relief. Why not? We don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Why?

Complacency. BC flicks for the past whenever have been color by numbers, connect the dots, and getting way too old for this kind of sh*t. There have been some bright spots. The first Rush Hour. The 21st Century take on 21 Jump Street (I know, an adapt, but good is good, and I’ll take what I can get). The hilarious Hot Fuzz; parody at its best. The Other Guys, wacky and turning the genre on its ear. These worked in the wake of the BC Golden Age 80s.

Then there’s the diaspora, which aimed to ruin the genre. And often did.

I’ll play it fast and loose for ya, cuz I think I’m losing you, enough to resort to semi-ironic mispellings a la a Slade playlist. Now please open the door before the obscurity police break it down and drag me away. Quit clapping.

Turner & Hooch, the response to Tom Hanks Oscar nom for BigShowtime, too meta for anyone’s good.   White Chicks? Um, we can always go too far. Cop And A Half? The less said about that.

You get it.

There’s dumb fun and then there’s just dumb. The above besmirched the good time stupid that BC movies culled. Again, don’t make me think too much. I have my Kurosawa collection for that purpose. And which I why I adore Running Scared. No samurai, but still.

Now we come to this week’s chopping block. Be warned. First, it’s a remake. Second, it’s a remake of a dopey 70s police procedural. On TV, no less. You’ve already heard my carps about that device. It does work sometimes (eg: 21 Jump Street), but more often such trickery falls flat (further eg: Dragnet). In the endgame, it’s all about keeping it fast enough and having the just right amount of dumb to fly. It’s the mantra to chant when approaching such a beast.

So to paraphrase Steve Martin (think Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), let’s get dumb.

Boom…


We got trouble. Right here in Bay City. Which starts with C and that rhymes with sea and that stands for: cocaine.

This kind of malfeasance really chafes the upstanding detective David Starsky (Stiller). He’s a model cop. Some may claim too model. Guy can’t let anything go. Every case is bamboo under the thumbnails. Every crime spreads feces all across his beloved city. Worst of all the Force won’t get off him for his perfect hair. It’s not a perm!

On the other side of town, loose cannon detective Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson) takes the crime of drug dealing way too casually. He’s a happy grass eater, pleased as punch to accidentally foil any crime boss’ plans. Accountability? Spell that please. Just doin’ the job, Captain.

This kind of offhand attitude regarding how the cops handle drug trade in Bay City offers all sorts of opportunities. Drug kingpin Reese Feldmen (Vaughn) has a plan. The scuzzier elements of Bay City want their fix, but the narco squad with their crack K9 unit won’t let this be. Money is to be made, if only there was a trick to the trade.

Feldman’s toady Kevin (Bateman) figured out where the rabbit hid. A new strain of coke, scentless, throwing the sniffers of any trail. Drug dogs can’t smell it, the China white. Feldmen is made.

Not quite. Dedicated cop Starsky and laid back Hutch are paired up to bring down the drug ring. Neither have ever had a partner before, and both are fast to piss one another off. But there’s the dire case to consider. And who can figure out who has the better haircut.

Actually, both need some straight dope, so to speak…


There’s a trick here to flicks like Starsky & Hutch, and I ain’t talkin’ about the buddy cop thing. That’ll come later. Always does whatever it is; you’ve been up this alley before. Welcome to my dead end.

The trick is this, and what was attempted, more often failed that succeeded what making the transition from small screen to big screen back in the day. By back in the day I mean the 90s. This’ll most likely be a retread 0f some knuckle-headed theory I spouted prior here at RIORI. Shaddap, it’s relevant, rest assured. Now wake up.

Back in the Slick Willie years Hollywood got a yen to adapt classic TV shows into big budget spectacles. The Fugitive, Lost In Space, even the freakin’ Flintstones got screen time. Boomer nostalgia running high then a great deal of these movies raked in the cash and made for passable movie entertainment. In that order. But for every Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables or The Fugitive (which even got an Oscar nod, before God) we got sh*t over shovel. But for every   we got The Beverly Hillbillies, Car 54 Where Are You?  and Dragnet (tho’ I admit I have a soft spot for that one. I blame that on maybe Tom Hanks’ character being named Pep. Sometimes I like slumming). Kinda funny Hollywood once felt threatened by the medium of TV. Divide and conquer, I guess. Pagans.

Ahem. Back to now. The trick is this: any TV adaptation to film’s make or break is laying on just the right amount of period cheeze without crumbling the cracker. Our above positive examples incorporated the right amount of nostalgia fuel (sometimes making that just wallpaper). MI with the disguises, international espionage and cool gadgets a la Tom Cruise just barely hanging over that computer lab. Heck, that one teeters on an iconic scene. Hard to screw up The Fugitive‘s story; played out not even like a TV remake (“I don’t care!” Couldn’t resist). Hell, even though Wayne’s World was a short bus period piece, and only culled from an SNL skit series, it caught a slice of pre-Web zeitgeist that was winning, even inviting a less than inviting sequel. All had touchstones that complemented the movie version, not overshadow it.

This theory seems pretty heavy-handed regarding a dopey buddy cop TV show from the 70s and therefore translated into a dopey buddy cop movie in the 00s. Either director Phillips didn’t get the message about how TV adapts are passé or he just tore up the note, ground the flecks under his heel, declared pishaw and barreled forth, dismayed haircuts be damned.

So yeah, Hutch is rife with winking period cheeze. It is not subtle. It is not refined as refined as TV police procedurals went during the Gerry Ford administration. The whole flick stinks of wallpaper paste. And it exists in a bubble. Again, seems Phillips did not give any sh*t, and maybe that was the point. A big winking joke, which was actually mildly funny.

Going without speaking, let’s jump into it. Our leads are it, the pinion on which this period 8-track clicks. Stiller and Wilson have an awkward chemistry and like Phillips’ direction it’s hard to tell if it’s on purpose. Regardless of my suspicions, Stiller and Wilson were a stitch throughout. The flick was smart to let the guys demonstrate—more like run riot—their signature comic chops; the sh*t they cut their teeth on.

Being a stiff, winking nebbish is what Stiller is best known for. From Reality Bites to Meet The Parents (where I belived he first sparred with Wilson) to The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty remake, Stiller at his best is when he plays the fish-out-of-water. By happenstance or by design. Stiller’s Starsky is an odd amalgam of Roger Murtaugh, momma’s boy and Frank Drebin. Dedicated, but to what? Sure, there’s the case, but that’s just the proverbial Maguffin. Here he kinda strains at being straight-laced; a “serious” Stiller is often funnier than a goofy, nerdy Stiller. He might not be some supercop, but to even infer that?

I’ve always dug Wilson’s shaggy dog sense of humor, like he doesn’t know where he’s going either. His midwestern surfer dude schtick has always tickled me, and it suits his Hutch to a T. “What could possibly go wrong?” should be his epitaph, and a keen catchphrase to his Hutch. We have Wilson here at his laid back silliness making it up as we go along for the ride.

Wilson and Stiller have sparred together before true, but not as primary foils. Hutch was their first true outing together if you ask me, and it was pretty amusing, almost in spite of the well-worn plot device (eg: bust a drug ring). But this was less a silly Lethal Weapon rip-off than more like a 21st take on Abbott And Costello Play Cops. But in the 70s. With a lot more boom. And babes. And cool hair. And all the body language smirks, like we’re all in on the joke. Including the audience.

Speaking of cool hair, Snoop Dogg as informant Huggy Bear was an inspired bit of casting. He managed to out-Murtaugh Murtaugh. Always timely on the scene to both deliver Starsky and Hutch about drug ring scuttlebutt and quick to remind them what a pair of lame-o white boys they are. And they need it. Simply put, we got good banter here with this doofy Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad. Guess it’s really no shock considering all three’s similar style of motormouthed delivery, either funky beats or stammering, uh, beats. Word.

Speaking of which, Vaughan has made a career of being a motormouth. His Feldmen doesn’t stray far his gimmick as carnival barker on speed has kinda worn thin on me, but paired with straight man Bateman as Kevin the sycophant works really well. Let’s face it, Hutch is a tongue-in-cheek, kitschy action comedy satire based on a 40 year old dopey buddy cop TV show (but with a cool car!). But that being said, we gotta have villains just as nutty as our heroes, essentially mirroring our gung ho cops (okay, Stiller is gung ho. Wilson asks what a “gung” is, and Snoop’s only interested in da hoes). Since Vaughn’s persona has become such a self-parody, why not work it? It does work here, against most odds; his Feldman is equal parts hustler and baddie with Bateman as “Yes, master. Whatever master. should be running this operation (backslap to the head; get back to the laboratory).

Not just our leads, but the accomplices all had a chance to shine. Well, maybe just one really. I’m not much of a fan of Will Farrell’s style of soft-core frat boy comedy. But sometimes…sometimes a snicker slips through the wire. Even as just a cameo, Farrell is as obnoxiously goofy as ever. He improved his entire scene, I’m sure of it. Despite me being a naysayer, I felt like Farrell stole the entire movie in five minutes. Remember what I said about trickery? No? Good. Moving on.

Despite Hutch being a semi-screwball comedy we do got have a nice little mystery to solve a la a hockey helmet Law And Order, but with more chuckles. It’s almost sovereign that all buddy cop movies got some dire stakes on the line if the bad guys succeed in their nefarious acts. Wooooo. I found it kinda cool—if only in a chewing gum sense—that this token device played out so…okay. I guess if found some strategic  scenes of action played well against the funny. It makes for better comedy in the long run. Ask the Greeks.

Whoa, whoa. What’s with all this in depth scrutiny of a dopey Todd Phillips parody (almost a given)? Okay. Sometimes you gotta give yourself over to the absurd. No matter how much you think you detest certain movies based on the casting, story and director’s crap shoots it sometimes, albeit rarely hits the mark. Hutch did that to me. I guess I was stressed out at my time of viewing and just needed a dumb laugh. Hutch gave me a tickle. That and it was decently funny, too, skewing all those buddy cop trappings listed before. We could do far, far worse here.

Like some damned perm for high school Homecoming, circa 1975. Go Cougars!

My mascot was a f*cking canary, which is probably why I grew my hair long. Why not?

Do it. Just do it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s dumb. It’s sophomoric. It’s funny. Take it with a lick of salt. I did and you’ll need it. Did I mention the cool car?


Stray Observations…

  • Great soundtrack. Period music played with a modern style. It works.
  • “Why are you touching him? Jesus…”
  • Nice shootout.
  • “Must be the old coke. This is the new coke.” “It’s sweeter.” Groan.
  • I did feel ashamed to laugh at this fluff. But it was fluff. It’s hard to be cynical sometimes.
  • Best. Easy Rider tribute. Ever. Down to the music.
  • Is that a fondue set? Oh yeah, right. Period piece.
  • Oh hey, it’s Patton Oswalt. Neat…who also improvised his lines.
  • Shout out to Hamm’s, Farrell’s poison of choice.
  • Direct quote from blogger’s lips: “Mimes. Oh, sh*t.”
  • “I don’t cry. I work out.”
  • Wait. When did the wheels get fixed?
  • “Do it.”

Next Installment…

The Half Nelson is referred to by most coaches as being the easiest, but most effective move in folkstyle wrestling, and is very commonly used.

Nice codependency metaphor there, Wikipedia.