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The Passion of the Starsky and the Hutch

Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller go old school; the Oscars give it up for the ugly and the unhappy; and "The Passion" might be bigger than you think.

11:00 PM, Mar 4, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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AS THE BRIGHT LIGHTS in Hollywood have run out of ideas for movies, they've made a habit of turning to other artistic mediums for source material. One time-honored tradition--pinching the theater--has come back in vogue ("Chicago"), but the multiplex is a monster which needs constant feeding. So America's highest-paid artists have been forced to look elsewhere.

And those who seek shall find. Today movies are often made from comic books ("X-Men," "The Hulk"), video games ("Tomb Raider," "Resident Evil")--even theme-park rides ("Pirates of the Caribbean"). And, of course, bad TV shows from the '60s and '70s.

Film versions of "The Addams Family," "The Brady Bunch," "Charlie's Angels," "I Spy," "Lost in Space," "SWAT," "My Favorite Martian," and "The Avengers" have been released. "Bewitched," "The Six Million Dollar Man," and others are in production. This weekend "Starsky & Hutch"--please note that we are only at the bottom of the middle of the barrel--comes to a theater near you.

"STARSKY & HUTCH" is directed (and in part written) by Todd Phillips and stars, promisingly, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, and Jason Bateman. Phillips previously wrote and directed the middling 2000 Tom Green vehicle "Road Trip" and, in 2003, the overachieving "Old School." Like Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and other auteurs, Phillips has his own talented repertory company. He just aims lower.

What humor is to be found in "Starsky & Hutch" stems from the smart bits given to Vaughn and Ferrell. Wilson is his usual charming self. Where "Starsky & Hutch" fails--and let's be honest, it's a sliding scale--is where it rests on '70s cultural parody. Yes, the Lost Decade was ridiculous. Yes, disco was stupid. Yes, the hairstyles were atrocious. No, it isn't funny anymore.

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WHATEVER ill words will be said of "STARSKY & HUTCH," it did provide the most amusing moments at the Oscars. In an otherwise pedestrian ceremony, Owen Wilson showed some rough edges, particularly when, during the preshow carpet bombing, he inquired of one insipid balloon-bod entertainment reporter, "Are they real?"

The same question might have been asked of some of the Oscar night winners. Of the many travesties, none were greater than the Best Actor and Actress awards.

First, what is there that can be said about Sean Penn? His performance in "Mystic River" was, of course, wonderful. The angst he projected, loudly, was so much more affecting than the angst previously put forth in "21 Grams." Or "The Thin Red Line." If Sean Penn had to win an Oscar--and let me assure you, he did--better it be for angst than retardation. Had he lost this year, surely 2005 would have seen a sequel to "I Am Sam."

But poor Bill Murray. All he did was turn in the performance of his career and carry "Lost in Translation" on his back for 105 minutes. If only Sofia Coppola had the sense to make his movie star character, Bob Harris, an alcoholic, or terminally ill, or--here's a thought!--mentally retarded. Or if Murray had just insisted on covering himself in makeup and unbecoming prosthetics so that he looked like the Hunchback of Tokyo.

That is, of course, all it takes to win the Oscar for Best Actress these days. Once upon a time--back when they didn't make movies out of video games--Best Actress awards were given to beautiful women with marginal theatrical talent as a way of legitimizing their status as actresses. From Ingrid Bergman to Elizabeth Taylor to Jane Fonda, this arrangement spanned decades.

Four out of the last five years the award has been given to a beautiful woman who has bravely turned herself into a hag. This string--Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, and now Charlize Theron--marks something of an evolution in vanity. It says something about Hollywood that not only are homely women unwelcome for the ingenue roles, but now they're not even fit to play ugly. Somewhere at Smith College there is a womyn's studies major honing a thesis on the subject, and what's more, she has a legitimate gripe.

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LOST IN THE OSCAR HUBBUB was the real movie news from the weekend: the box office performance of "The Passion of the Christ." By now you probably know that "The Passion" opened to $125 million in its first five days of release. You know that it has broken or is about to break all sorts of records (biggest grossing foreign-language film, R-rated film, etc.). But what you may not know is how big "The Passion" might get.

The biggest grossing movies aren't foretold by opening weekend numbers, but by the percentage of weekend-to-weekend declines. A poorly performing movie declines over 60 percent every weekend; an average movie declines around 50 percent; a good performer keeps the drop to around 45 percent. Movies with declines under 30 percent can go on to very, very big business.

The midweek numbers for "The Passion" are quite strong and so far track closely with "The Return of the King" and "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

But watch the numbers this weekend. Gitesh Pandya, editor of the excellent site Box Office Guru, thinks "The Passion" will decline somewhere around 35 to 40 percent--"Which would be very good," he says "for a movie that opened this big."

For a number of reasons I won't get into here, I suspect "The Passion" may have an even lower decline number--perhaps as low as 20 or 25 percent. This would put it on course to be one of the top two or three grossing movies of all time. A decline number in the twenties would signal that "The Passion" is on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon similar to "Titanic," would in all probability make it the biggest grossing movie of 2004, and thus make it impossible to ignore at next year's Academy Awards.

Jonathan V. Last in online editor of The Weekly Standard.