Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stripes - 1981

"Stripes" - 1981
Dir. by Ivan Reitman - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There are some great, classic comedy moments in "Stripes," but they're not evenly spaced throughout the film.  Basically, this is what should have been a throwaway comedy (like whatever is currently in the theatre starring Jason Bateman - comedy product) that's elevated by a legitimately great first act and by what the actors involved would end up going on to do.  If it hadn't starred Bill Murray (and Harold Ramis), there's no way "Stripes" would be anything more than just some weird 80s film that keeps popping up on cable every so often.

John (Bill Murray) is a slacker (or maybe a proto-slacker); he's clearly smart, has a beautiful girlfriend, and almost immediately loses both.  His mouth never stops running throughout, but he recognizes that he's mired in mediocrity.  His solution is to convince his best friend, ESL teacher Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis), to enlist in the U.S. Army with him.  Bill Murray in the Army?  Exactly.  And that's not even getting to other enlistees like Ox (John Candy), the seemingly brain-damaged Cruiser (John Diehl), or the psychedelically-inclined Elmo (Judge Reinhold).

In comedies, a good premise only goes so far.  No one expects the same quality of plot as you would out of a drama; you can have a great comedy that make almost no sense as a story, so long as there's a steady stream of great scenes.  In "Stripes," the story is pretty slim.  Slackers realize their situation, join the Army, go to boot camp, have a misadventure.  There are essentially three sections: pre-Army, boot camp, and misadventure.  Unfortunately, the first section is the best, and the third is the least.  But as much as it's disappointing to watch a promising film fizzle out (in a relative sense, I still enjoyed the film overall), the first act is about as good as you'll find in a dumb comedy.  Both Murray and Ramis' characters are established as well as you'll ever see, and even without explaining each guys' history, it's apparent how they each got into their respective messes.

John is almost always the smartest guy in the room, which is less a promise of success than an admission that he's out of place.  He shouldn't be driving a cab and getting stiffed for fares, but there he is stumbling along.  At the same time, it's not hard to see how he's landed a girlfriend like he had.  By comparison to his position and company that he keeps, he comes off like a genius.  And it's not hard to see why the girls never stay around, once they realize that there's a lack of drive to excel at much of anything beyond having something funny to say about pretty much everything.  When his girlfriend is leaving, John doesn't meaningfully promise that he'll change, but he busts off a handful of all-time great lines (to start, there's the whole Tito Puente thing, and then "You can't leave.  All the plants will die") to cover that he's aware of the inevitability of her departure.  But even prior to that, the entire world seems to pile on John all at once, which leaves him without the energy to do anything about anything.

Once the film hits the boot-camp section, the tone eases up.  There are very good moments here, too, but they're more screwball than the first section, which was about the world ganging up on John.  Instead, we get goofy characters interacting with other goofy characters, which works well.  There are at least three memorable comedy scenes here: the mud-wrestling scene, John and Russell with the cute MPs (the "Aunt Jemima treatment" scene), and the graduation "that's the facts, Jack" scene.  The humor's broader, which isn't a problem because there are still a lot of funny things going on.  But once "Stripes" hits the military RV sequence, the whole thing's about out of steam.  It's one thing to watch John Candy and Bill Murray being shaped into soldiers, but does anyone really want to see them in action, with stuff blowing up and bullets being fired?

On the whole, "Stripes" is still a funny movie.  For a thirty-year old comedy to not only be watchable, but to still hold entertainment value is an accomplishment.  At the time, it might not have seemed like a star-studded cast, but when you've got John Larroquette, Sean Young, and Warren Oates playing relatively minor roles, there's a lot of talent floating around this film.  And it's not a disappointment or anything, I just thought that, like a lot of comedies, it's a bit uneven and doesn't end as strongly as I would have liked.  But that's the difference between an all-time great comedy movie and one that I get a kick out of re-watching every so often.  But having said that, if there's a poster somewhere of the Ox "Teen Beat" cover, I need that on my wall as soon as possible.

3 / 5 - Streaming

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