Stripes August 6, 2021
2 Hrs., 2 Mins.
tripes (1981) is a comedy premised around joining the Army as a kind of joke. Like the previous year’s “Private Benjamin,” military life is broadly made to look sort of fun — the perfect playground for a sitcom. (Only in “Private Benjamin,” it takes a while for its lead, a poor-little-rich-girl type played by Goldie Hawn, to have a good time, though — she joined by accident, duped by a dishonest recruiter, and
has to be whipped into shape before she can relax.) “Stripes”’ jester-ish hero, John (Bill Murray), enlists at the beginning of the movie mostly because he doesn’t know what else to do. “I’m part of a lost generation — what do you want me to do, run for Senate?” he ponders early on. He loses his girlfriend, apartment, and job (he’s a taxi driver) in such quick succession one afternoon that it’s like his entire life has collapsed on itself like a house of cards thwacked with a sudden gust of wind. John convinces his similarly dispassionate if not as depressed-with-life best friend, a vocational English-as-a-second-language teacher named Russell (Harold Ramis), to join him. Soon they’re in Louisville, Kentucky, for basic training, OK’d for service because they’re in good shape, have never been convicted, and aren’t gay. “But we are willing to learn!” Russell assures the enlistment officer.
Neither man, from the jump, takes any of their training very seriously. When their drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates), confronts John for his open smart aleckness — Hulka thinks John is a puck, a familiar kind of unserious-about-the-Army slacker type — John’s face freezes into a smirk, unflinching even when Hulka is close enough to his face to moisten it with hot breath and stray spit. And when John, Russell, and the rest of their squadron are outside, perfecting their march, John instigates a giggly singalong to “Do Wah Diddy,” using the rhythm of their sergeant’s commands and the rest of the squad’s stomps like a percussion section. It isn’t that John and the far-mellower Russell realize they don’t want to be here the moment their last-resort idea becomes real. It’s that they seem to enjoy the challenge of eking fun from a characteristically no-fun environment. They’re laid-back troublemakers who get energized pushing against this new environment’s severe, built-in attitudinal restrictions.
This comedy, directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Ramis, Dan Goldberg, and Len Blum, has manifestly been formed around Murray. Our enjoyment in it is almost always rooted in his line readings, his recognizable and mostly beloved way of acting in what feels like quotation marks, his general unpredictability as an actor. Murray is often so exciting to watch, I think, because you can never be too sure if he’s going to play a new scene more sincerely than he had the last one or keep up his deadpan-jokester shtick. He keeps you on your toes. “Stripes”’ Murray-centeredness ensures your amusement in it be almost entirely contingent on how funny you find him. Since I like spending time with Murray (who here is like a clown mixed with Eeyore) whenever I can, I found “Stripes,” which knows what to do with him, affable, even if it’s not particularly energetic or imaginative. “Stripes” plays like a series of episodes comprising a star-driven sitcom’s first season, where we (and it seems the writers) are less concerned about where the plot is going, whether its characters are meaningfully developing, and more with how these actors we’ve come to have affection for are going to react to what narrative hurdles are thrown at them.
Though Murray and Ramis’ performances engage us (there are also quite-good supporting turns from a teddy-bearish John Candy and the delightfully gruff Oates), the gags trend middling, enlivened only by the comic performances they contain. The inevitable climactic thrust into action is rudimentary — it feels tacked-on. And the movie is generally too long; it drapes over the two-hour mark when we can picture it reasonably doing just fine closer to 80 minutes. Still, “Stripes” is a likable comedy that works as a solid early-period showcase for its lead. Murray’s dynamic inventiveness as an actor makes up for the film’s general inertia. In keeping with John and Russell’s shrug-assisted attitude toward enlistment, there are worse things to do than watch “Stripes.” For fans of Murray, there are few things better. B