Day 86: Stripes

"We're not homosexuals, but we are willing to learn."

The 1980s was the best decade for American comedy, period. The comedy revolution began in the 70s with Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and John Landis, but the films made by these and others laid the groundwork for the comedy renaissance that would come about in the 80s. Every year of the decade had at least two comedies in the top five highest grossing films of the year. A new group of stars was born as well with Saturday Night Live becoming the breeding ground for a new generation of comedy film superstars. Out of all the superstars the show has bred over the years, Bill Murray is arguably the most revered and respected of them all. Chevy Chase had bigger initial success, Eddie Murphy's films grossed more at the box office, Mike Myers and Will Ferrell have achieved superstardom as well, but Murray seems to be the one that rises to the top of most people's lists of favorite actors from SNL.

After making a splash in 1979's Meatballs, Murray stole the show in 1980's Caddyshack right out from under the feet of Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight & Chevy Chase. But it was 1981's Stripes that showed the world that Murray had true movie star charisma, and could easily sustain a career as a leading man. The film is a classic, usually cited by people as one of their favorite comedies. Now, I'm not trying to make it a habit of tearing down sacred cows here, but between Tootsie yesterday and Stripes today, I'm wondering how long it's been since people have watched these movies.

I found myself in Best Buy a few weeks ago holding the blu-ray of Stripes in my hand, but it stated on the cover that it only contained an extended cut with 18 minutes of additional scenes edited into the movie. I pondered that for a moment, and decided to pass, hoping to catch the theatrical cut sometime soon and decide from there if the film could actually sustain another 18 minutes of footage. I'm glad I held off. Don't get me wrong here, there's a lot of funny stuff in Stripes, it's just not the laugh riot you remember. Murray has tons of charisma, and there's a danger to him that was in short supply with most leading actors in comedy. That edge is what makes Murray's true classic, Groundhog Day, work so well, because you don't actually know if he's going to change his ways.

Stripes on the other hand doesn't know if it wants to be an ensemble piece or a one-man show. They spend entirely too much time without Murray as the center of attention for it to be his show, and Murray doesn't always have the best lines. The film initially took life as a vehicle for Cheech and Chong, which makes a lot of sense, because I never understood why Harold Ramis' character Russell would sign up for the army along with Murray's character John. It has the feel of a two-man show, but clearly favors Murray's antics over Ramis's.

It's curious how much the structure of the film seems to share with Full Metal Jacket, and how I feel the same way about both films. Both films have much better first halves, and come precipitously close to falling apart in the second half, Stripes more so. Once they leave basic training, the film more or less grinds to a halt. Bringing back Sgt. Hulka was the saving grace for Stripes (a move Full Metal Jacket obviously couldn't duplicate) but it almost serves as a reminder how much better the film was an hour ago than it is now.

Stripes is very funny. There's a lot of really great bits like the mud wrestling, the graduation ceremony, and anything involving John Larroquette, of whom I am an unabashed admirer. There's also a ton of filler and bits that don't work, like the two MPs played by PJ Soles and Sean Young. They're clearly there to add a love interest for both main characters, and it feels that way. They really serve no purpose other than being a plot device, so why have them there at all? If the film were fifteen minutes shorter, it would rightly deserve to be called a classic, but at a slightly bloated 106 minutes, it's a few cuts short of being great. I can't even fathom what the extra 18 minutes does to it. Pushing any comedy north of the two hour mark is a dangerous proposition that very very very few comedies have been able to sustain.

More than anything though, Stripes gave us Bill Murray the movie star, and for that alone, it deserves its place in film history. I guess I just wish it were as funny as I remember it being.

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