Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stripes

Bill Murray is one of the funniest actors in history, and his comedy seems effortless when he is at his best.  For my money, his best is in Stripes.  Why is that?  Maybe it's because he liked working with Ivan Reitman, his director in Meatballs, again.  Maybe he enjoyed the company and writing style of fellow Chicagoan and Second City alum Harold Ramis; this was their third film working together.  Maybe Murray was tired of playing supporting roles and was finally ready to be a leading man.  I don't really care why.  I'm just glad this movie was made.

Career slacker John Winger (Bill Murray) has lost his crappy job, his crappy car, and his too-attractive-for-him girlfriend in the matter of only a few hours.  With no real career options, his situation seems hopeless.  By chance, though, John and his buddy, Russell (Harold Ramis), see a commercial for the US Army on television.  Reasoning that the Army would get them into shape, give them a career path, and provide uniforms that seduce women on their own, the two sign up and are quickly sent off to basic training.  Why would Russell go with this whim?  Because his career teaching English to immigrants wasn't as exciting as he had hoped, I guess.
Harold Ramis: secret member of The Crystals
The reasons for their joining aren't terribly important (although, they do turn out to be poorly thought out).  What is important is that the two join a cast of misfits in basic training, and Winger goes out of his way to regularly irritate their drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates).  It turns out that Army training is hard and not terribly sympathetic to smart asses.  Who knew?

As I mentioned earlier, Bill Murray is on the top of his game here.  The chemistry between him and the rest of the cast is fantastic, particularly the banter between him and Harold Ramis.  Murray can sometimes seem a little bored in film roles when he is not allowed to be weird, but he clearly had a lot of freedom in this film.  I'm sure a lot of his lines were improvised, but his joke delivery here is great and the rest of the cast reacts perfectly.
Murray, about to give P.J. Soles the "Aunt Jemima" treatment
This was Harold Ramis' first substantial film role, but he did a good job playing the square to Murray's slacker.  Warren Oates was even better as their ornery drill sergeant.  He was basically playing the straight man to Murray, buy he also had a few little moments of his own.  My favorites include his reaction after being blown up and his involuntary chuckle after Winger refers to him as a "big toe."
This movie had a lot of up-and-comers in it, too.  Unfortunately, this was the last major film role for P.J. Soles; she wasn't a great actress here, but she played her part well enough (and didn't have to say "totally" for a change).  Sean Young had a small and fairly charisma-free performance as Russell's love interest, but how many interesting characters would have fallen for Harold Ramis?  This had to have been John Candy's big break; even though he had a small part in The Blues Brothers, he was really given a chance to shine in Stripes.  If nothing else, he deserves recognition for his Three Stooges homage during his mud wrestling scene.
So...the Stooges hurt women?
John Larroquette and Judge Reinhold also had early career appearances in this film (it was Reinhold's debut), and both were funnier here than in any other movie I can recall.  This is also one of career character actor John Diehl's biggest roles.  He did a good job as the hopelessly stupid recruit.  Bill Paxton and SCTV members Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty have cameos in the movie; if you can't spot Paxton --- and it's pretty hard --- re-watch the mud wrestling scene. 

This is perhaps the pinnacle of director Ivan Reitman's decade-plus run of entertaining movies.  He has made movies with better stories and special effects, but there's a certain magic in Stripes that I can't imagine duplicating.  Reitman's talent as a comedy director is knowing how to work with comedians and then cut their performances into a cohesive plot.  He does that quite well here.  Perhaps his greatest achievement in Stripes was getting the use of Fort Knox to film the exterior army base scenes.  Would this movie have worked if there weren't real soldiers and tanks in the background?  Probably, but that authenticity made the antics of Winger seem all the more ridiculous.  Reitman also opted to include a couple of somewhat depressing dramatic scenes to balance the film out --- and they worked; the Hulka vs. Winger bathroom scene (the non-pornographic one) really makes a case for being a soldier.

Sure, the film loses some steam after basic training is completed.  What do you expect?  The drill routine during their graduation ceremony is all sorts of awesome; how can an Army movie follow that scene up?
HHHH-arrrmy training, SIR!
I'm not saying that the rest of the movie is bad, it's just nowhere near as amusing as the first hour.  The magazine cover cut-aways during the final scene are funny, but a little too similar to the end scenes of Animal House (which Ramis also co-wrote) for my tastes.  Essentially, my complains for Stripes can be boiled down to kind of imitating a successful comedy classic and a pacing problem...in a comedy.  Shocking allegations, I know, but I take controversial stances.

Stripes is a comedy classic showcasing a lot of young talent that would heavily influence the rest of the 1980s and it showcased Bill Murray having fun.  It doesn't get much better than this.

For fans of the movie that are curious about the Extended Cut, it doesn't provide much.  Aside from an awkward scene with a topless P.J. Soles, every cut scene deserved its place on the editing floor.  On a final note, I would like to point out just how far superior the primary movie poster (pictured at the top of this post) was to another poster that was made for the movie.  What, they thought that the main draw of the film was going to be the heavily armed RV?  Who approved this?

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