For a brief moment in the early 1980s, the army was considered a source of wacky movie comedy. Perhaps enough time had passed after Vietnam, so Goldie Hawn could make Private Benjamin, and Bill Murray could star in Stripes as John Winger, an out of work artist/taxi driver who enlists in the army after his girlfriend leaves him. Winger convinces his friend, ESL teacher Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis) to join him, because this is a buddy comedy, and two bad decisions are infinitely better than one. Unfortunately for these two lovable losers, smirks are not effective weapons of mass destruction, and while Stripes is certainly amiable, at times downright hilarious, its plot is sadly as aimless and unstructured as its main characters.
Before it goes off the rails, the high points of Stripes–which is playing this Saturday at BAM–come from Murray and Ramis’s chemistry and razor-sharp dialogue in the early moments of their enlistment interviews and travels. Murray’s deadpan charm shines through when the recruiter asks him if he’s ever been convicted of a crime, and Winger answers, face showing psychopath-level emotionless, “Convicted? No.”
Basic training also gives supporting characters a chance to shine. John Candy embodies the essence of Dewey Oxberger, a hyper, enthusiastic, but overweight private who hopes that the army will get him in good shape. The look on his face after his regulation haircut is priceless, as is the way he cradles his lost locks like a puppy. Warren Dunn is Francis “Psycho” Soyer who hilariously threatens his fellow recruits with bodily harm, and bulging eyes should they even consider touching him. This remedial army is responsible for some great training montages: falling on and over each other and various obstacle courses, even nearly blowing up the tough Sargent Hulka (Warren Oates), charged with the unenviable task of turning a bunch of slackers into soldiers.
Unfortunately, the unlikely soldiers plot wears thin as the movie gets out of the confines of basic training, and into actual army work. There’s an opportunity for a neater ending point at their basic training graduation, but instead the whole group wins a coveted assignment guarding an urban assault vehicle in Italy, which elicits groans rather than the expected excitement at the promise of Italian hijinks. By the time Winger and Ziske steal the urban assault vehicle they’ve been sent to Italy to guard, and use it to visit their military policewoman paramours (who they conveniently had time to seduce before they left), it seems more tired than hilarious. They’re doing this all for some policewoman? At the expense of more time with the hilarious other soldiers? Even the final shoot out with said vehicle feels a little too late, action wise. Something is off when you find yourself rooting for the opposing forces so that a battle can end.
Stripes is for serious Murray fans only. One can’t deny the Murrary/Ramis chemistry, but the pacing, the structure, and the lightly sketched characters overshadow it. Fortunately, Ghostbusters, a prime example of what these two comedic stars can do together, is also showing in the same American Gagsters series at BAM. There’s even more room for fantastic supporting characters, Ramis and Murray have honed their comedic powers, and New York, even covered with green slime, looks as glamorous as it does gritty.