Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1981)

3. Stripes

“Meatballs” was a success, establishing Ivan Reitman as a comedy hit-maker and further cementing Bill Murray as the most beloved comedic actor of the day. For his follow-up, Reitman would re-team with Harold Ramis. Though Ramis contributed to the previous film's script, “Stripes” would put the writer in front of the camera. Most importantly, “Stripes” would get Reitman out of Canada, becoming his major studio debut. The film was another solid hit for the director and another popular vehicle for its star’s unique, laid-back charm.
In the last six hours, John Winger has lost his job, his girlfriend, and his home. Completely out of all other options, Winger signs up for the Army. Obviously not heading out on an adventure like this alone, his friend Russell also enlists with him. Though Winger’s flippant attitude has him bristling against his sergeant and the military’s structure, his off-kilter skills makes him an unexpected success. Soon enough, John and Russell are overseas, guarding the army’s new weapon and mistakenly launching an international incident.

“Stripes” began life as a delightfully stupid idea. On the way to “Meatball’s” premiere, Ivan Reitman thought up “Cheech and Chong Join the Army.” Realizing how irresistible that concept was, Paramount immediately greenlit the film. The stoner comedy duo liked the script but wanted total creative control over the project. Instead, Reitman and his writers retooled the premise for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. That “Stripes” began life as a film for established performers is not too surprising. The movie sits comfortably within the parameters of the “slobs vs. snobs” genre. Except, of course, in the army. Lazy goofballs undermine and scuffle against authorities figures in the name of having a good time. Their shenanigans soon lead them on a ridiculous adventure. Considering how strict the military is, this is a good setting for such a story line.

Like “Meatballs,” “Stripes” does not have a laboriously constructed screenplay. The film is nearly plotless for most of its run time, playing out like a collection of skits and riffs. The movie is also leisurely paced, moving at a calm tempo from set-up to set-up. Like his previous movie, Reitman knows how to make this approach work. “Stripes” is a perfect hang-out movie. A viewer can drop in at any point, find something funny, and click out just as easily. Though not a consistently hilarious laugh-generator, the movie manages to be amusing throughout its run time.

Most of this can be attributed to Bill Murray. Despite deploying his typically hysterical above-it-all attitude, an early scene where Winger struggles to perform some push-ups aligns him with the common man. “Stripes” represents Murray at his most sarcastic. During the opening conference, before training even starts, Winger is already quibbing to himself and talking back to his superiors. An especially amusing montage has Murray continuously doing push-ups in the rain, after pissing off the boss multiple times. Despite playing a perpetual smart-ass, Murray is endlessly charming. Realizing how fantastic he was at off-the-cuff speeches in “Meatballs,” Murray realizes another subversive inspirational speech here. Whether he’s leading his troop in a song-or-dance routine or tossing a basketball through a window, Murray’s endless charisma keeps “Stripes” afloat even during its choppiest moments.

Before “Stripes,” Harold Ramis was primarily a writer and director. He already had two comedy classics, “Animal House” and “Caddyshack,” under his belt. A reoccurring part on “SCTV” was his only acting experience. The studio didn’t want Ramis in the movie but Reitman and Murray both insisted on him. As Russell, Ramis is usually the straight man to Murray’s mischief. One not-worthy scene has him punching Winger out when he thinks about deserting. Despite technically being the Lou to Murray’s Costello, Ramis still gets plenty of gags to himself. His performance is also defined by a relaxed, sardonic goofiness. When chatting with a stoner at the bus station or leading his class in song, it’s clear that Ramis’ comedic chops nearly matches Murray’s. If nothing else, the two are a great team.

“Stripes” is not built entirely upon Murray and Ramis. Just mostly. Both guys receive a love interest. At first, P.J. Soles and Sean Young are both put off by Murray and Ramis’ goofball antics. As military police, it’s their jobs to regulate trouble-makers. Naturally, both girls are won over by the men. P.J. Soles’ previous appearances as Lynda in “Halloween” and Riff Randell in “Rock n’ Roll High School” showed off her incredible, bubbly energy. In “Stripes,” she has to restrain some of that effervescent charm as a professional. It doesn’t last for long, as Winger quickly melts her exterior. The scene of the two playing on a stove is simultaneously funny and sexy. Sean Young doesn’t make as much of an impression. However, her interactions with Ramis are still great. Honestly, the romance comes out of nowhere in the script. If it wasn’t for the talent of the performers, it probably wouldn’t have worked at all.

Further elevating “Stripes” is a fantastic supporting cast. Ramis brought another SCTV veteran with him. John Candy had appeared on camera before, in undistinguished fare like “The Clown Murders” and bit parts in “1941” and “The Blues Brothers.” As Pvt. Dewey “Ox” Oxburger, Candy shows off the child-like sense of wonder he would display in many future roles. When forced in compromising scenarios by his teammates, it makes for some good laughs. John Larroqutte had few credits under his belt as well. As Captain Stillman, he’s the perfect ass-kisser. His continued bafflement at Winger and his friends’ success makes for some solid humor. Laroqutte is even better when caught acting on his own puerile interests.

There’s other notably funny supporting parts. Judge Reinhold gets a few good lines as the stoner recruit. Conrad Dunn is probably the most memorable of the troops as Psycho, a very tightly strung private who likes to yell at other people. However, the secret ace up “Stripes’” sleeve is Warren Oates. A veteran tough guy actor, more commonly seen in grim films like “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” or “The Shooting,” Oates has a rare chance to show off his comedic skills. As Sergeant Hulka, Oates has to constantly put up with Murray’s bullshit. As the situation gets nuttier, Oates’ straight face never wavers. Sadly, this would be one of Oates’ last roles. He would pass a year later.

While reviewing “Meatballs,” I noted that Reitman had made a movie about horny teenagers without indulging in too much exploitation. Yeah, not so much this time. “Stripes” is loaded with gratuitous female nudity. Larroqutte spies on the female soldiers washing themselves in the showers, making lascivious comments to himself. Later, Candy and the rest of the team end up at a stripe club, watching a mud wrestling match between scantily clad babes. They too end up topless. Listen, I’m not against a little blatant T&A. I’m fine with it, actually. However, “Stripes” lingers on the female co-stars’ bodies until it feels sleazy. Considering this is such a guy’s-guys movie, there’s something slightly mean-spirited and definitely exploitative about the frequent nudity.

About an hour in, John Winger and his friends earn the respect of his superiors. In other words, the story basically ends. Instead of just padding a friendly hour out to feature length, “Stripes” continues on for over forty more minutes. John and Russell wind up in Italy, guarding a new armored vehicle. Through some tomfoolery, the rest of the troop wind up in Soviet prison. So the guys and their girlfriends have to save the day, riding the weaponized Winnebago into enemy territory. At this point, “Stripes” becomes even sillier. The EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle looks ridiculous, like an army green Wiener-Mobile. The way the vehicle unfolds machine guns and flame throwers is even sillier. Muray, P.J. Soles, and the rest running around with machine guns, rescuing people and fighting off commies, feels like a left turn. “Stripes” still functions on a good natured silliness. Yet the last act feels increasingly desperate to get laughs out of the audience.

Elmer Burnstein’s score in “Meatballs” was unremarkable. His work in “Stripes” is a little better. A military theme is obviously employed. A decent collection of marches are used, each puffed up to bigger size, to emphasize the ridiculousness of the situation. Presumably because the film had a higher budget, the wretched original songs of “Meatballs” are nowhere to be seen. Reitman’s use of pop music is still a little heavy-handed. “Rubberband Man” is prominently used during the stripe club sequence, for one example. However, Murray or Ramis launching into renditions of “Da Doo Ron Ron” or “Doo Wah Diddy” are hard to resist.

An extended cut of “Stripes” exist, reinserting eighteen minutes of deleted scenes. While a few of these sequences are amusing, such as an LSD-assisted trip into the jungle, they mostly end up extending an already too-long film to over two hours. “Stripes” is fairly slap-dash in construction. The script is nothing special and eventually collapses in on itself in the last half. However, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis count for a lot. The leads, along with a talented supporting cast, keep this very goofy movie light and entertaining. [Grade: B]


Sean Catlett said...

I've not seen it. I just know that Jeff Winger from Community is inspired by Bill Murray, and if things didn't go horribly wrong in Season 4, they would have tried to get him to play Joel McHale's dad.

Bonehead XL said...

I thought about referencing the "Community" connection but it didn't make it in there. Even if the Gas Leak Season hadn't happen, I doubt Murray would've done it.