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September 6, 2014

Stripes

by Franz Patrick


Stripes (1981)
★★ / ★★★★

John (Bill Murray) was so sick of being a taxi driver, he abandoned his rude customer in the middle of a bridge and threw away the key in the water. After he tells his girlfriend what he had just done, she tells him that their relationship is over. Desperate for direction, a U.S. Army recruitment commercial appears on television. John becomes convinced that enlisting is an excellent idea, but there is no way he is going to sign up alone. So, he persuades the dependable but equally dissatisfied Russell (Harold Ramis), his best friend, to enlist with him.

Although “Stripes,” written by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, and Harold Ramis, is set in the military for the most part, its technique in terms of how to deliver the comedy involves throwing random jokes on screen to see what would stick. This is very unreliable: the ones that work are really funny but the ones that fail to inspire even a hint of a smile come across as filler. The unsatisfying jokes outnumber those with wit and sense of irony which results in a very mix bag.

What I found reliable, however, are the performances. Murray is very entertaining as a goofball who is convinced that military training will be a breeze because, unlike holding a job, it does not have to be taken seriously. He is sarcastic and appropriately annoying at times which inspires Sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates) take notice of him in a negative way. When the two are at each other’s throats, the screenplay has spark and energy. While the camera stays in one place during their arguments, I noticed that I could not help zeroing in on their faces and wondering, “Oh, you’re going to take what that guy just said?”

I enjoyed listening to them bicker. If there had been more scenes of control being forced upon John, the material would have been more amusing because John absolutely despises authority. The more someone holds onto him, the wilder he becomes. And just when we think John has learned from a situation and has gained a bit more maturity, he proves that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

John Candy as Ox, another volunteer recruit, is enjoyable to watch particularly the scene when he wrestles five or six women in the mud. There are times, however, when I wondered if the writing would stop using his size and weight as a source of comedy. I sensed an intelligence in Ox, thanks to Candy for bothering to put a enough subtlety in his character, but I felt as though Ox is not given a chance to become more than just the fat guy in the army. The joke turns stale quickly because it is one-dimensional.

Lastly, the picture, directed by Ivan Reitman, completely falls apart in the third act. When the 3rd Platoon Bravo Company arrive in Czechoslovakia, everyone except for John, Russell, Stella (P.J. Soles), and Louise (Sean Young), the latter two a part of the military police, ends up with having no mind of their own. Didn’t anyone learn anything from their training in boot camp? Just because the picture is a comedy of errors, it does not justify allowing the characters to act dumb when we know that they are smarter than what the scene minimally requires.

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