Saturday, July 16, 2016

Stripes

I always found 1981's STRIPES to be a very funny comedy, but I never thought of it as exemplary of anything.  It was made in the wake of the enormous success of NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, released around the same time as other slob comedies like CADDYSHACK and THE BLUES BROTHERS.  Films in which the underdogs "won", saved the day, got the girl, whatever.  Slob icon John Belushi was quoted as saying that these movies showed "it was OK to screw up".

Watching STRIPES last year, it played quite differently.  It felt like some minor classic.  Distinguished, even.  I think this is mainly because more recent raunchy comedies are so damned depressing.  Depressing in their lack of originality, lazy writing, on and on.  While critics were moaning about how comedies of the late '70s and 80s were a real comedown from the days of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, they did not realize how much further things would slide.

Bill Murray plays John Winger, a severely underachieving 30ish guy who drives a cab and listens to Tito Puente albums into the wee hours.  Early in the film, he loses he job, girlfriend, and apartment, prompting he and pal Russell (Harold Ramis) to enlist in the Army. Honestly, what else is there to do?  Their meeting with a recruiter is a droll classic bit of comedy in itself, though my favorite bit is right before, when someone on the street yells at the guys for parking in a certain spot.  "We're not parking it, we're abandoning it," Winger retorts.

Basic training is the expected clash of slacker versus old school disciplinarian, the latter well played by Warren Oates.  As Sergeant Hulka, he projects calm authority, never over-the-top gunnery trash talking.  When he dresses down Wenger, he offers wisdom that is old hat yet entirely not debatable; even his weary rival has to acknowledge in kind.  Their restroom scene is unexpectedly powerful.

But this is STRIPES, not HAMBURGER HILL or the like.  Director Ivan Reitman and company are going mostly for broad laughs, perhaps culminating in a women's mud wrestling pit with the recruits, including a big guy called "Ox" (John Candy, quite funny, stealing every scene he's in. LOVE his initial entrance).  Murray masters his wise ass grouch persona while Ramis is a perfect sidekick, doing his own sardonic bit. The movie also features early appearances by Judge Reinhold (as a private) and John Larroquette (as put-upon, Peeping Tom Captain Stillman). Sean Young and P.J. Soles may sound like the names of male actors but in fact are actresses portraying two very cute female M.P.s who get involved with our guys.  The "Aunt Jemima treatment" scene is pretty memorable.

Interestingly, as with PRIVATE BENJAMIN, another fish out of water military comedy of the day, STRIPES stumbles a bit in the later going.  Once the platoon is in Italy (and even Czechoslovakia), some of the fun drains away.  The plot gets a bit too involved, when we would've enjoyed just seeing the guys (and gals) back at the base.  Maybe that famous drill display scene ("That's the fact, Jack!") should've been the finale?

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