In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
I just don’t get it, Ramis. I really don’t.
Another pre-Ghostbusters Harold Ramis movie, Stripes feels like another in a line of films that slowly improve until the stars align and inspiration strikes with Venkman, Stantz and Spengler. Believe me, it pains me to write these words. I didn’t want to dislike Stripes any more than I wanted to like Beverly Hills Cop. But we can’t always get what we want.
It might be a little unfair to say I actively disliked Stripes. It’s a fine movie. It just isn’t all that funny. The movie itself, and in particular the comedy, feels so awkward, so overgrown. So big and long and silly in all the wrong places and so small and undeveloped and weak in all the other wrong places. If Caddyshack is an awkward high-school freshman transitioning from Animal House to Ghostbusters, Stripes is the sophomore, somehow even lankier and more pimply than last year. Sure, he’s getting older, and you can see more clearly what he’ll eventually become, but he’s still got a way to go before his voice doesn’t crack and he stops getting inopportune boners.
That is to say, there’s more character here than in Caddyshack, there’s more story, there’s slightly more sympathy and a little more polish. But what Stripes gains in these departments it loses in comedy. Which, honestly, I’m willing to let slide. A good movie is a good movie whether it’s funny or not. But this movie has so much potential for comedy in its cast and premise that it’s surprising, let alone disappointing, to see it doesn’t have the teeth it could have.
The concept for the film is pretty low-hanging fruit – two slackers join the army and against all odds are able to both succeed and remain completely useless. It’s such an obvious premise it’s no surprise it’s been made more than once – Pauly Shore’s In The Army Now bears more than a passing resemblance (which, as if I needed less respect, I have actually seen). But – and here’s another sentence that is literally upsetting to write – at least In The Army Now has a plot that goes somewhere. But it’s true! In Stripes, 80% of the film takes place in basic training, a frustratingly low-stakes scenario, and the only really exciting plot point – the Czech rescue – feels tacked on, like the writers realized that the platoon graduating from basic training wasn’t quite enough.
At least they were right about that. The late third act in Czechoslovakia is the only part of the film with any imagination, and although it’s not much more than a smash-and-grab, there is some action and a much-needed opportunity for Ramis and Murray to be their characters in a scenario outside of boot camp. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, and by the time the gang graduates, they’ve wasted too many opportunities to heighten and explore who their characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Because of its length and its low stakes, the overgrown boot camp plot feels like the whole movie. Which is a shame. Boot camp isn’t a place to explore characters and relationships. There’s nothing to explore, and it’s not exactly fertile grounds for comedy. There’s a boot camp reality show for crying out loud. If you really want to make a movie just about basic training, fine – but give us more than a couple half-hearted training montages and the characters being miserable and defiant the whole time.
One writes a movie like Stripes to explore the disconnect between what we – and the characters – assume the army to be about and what it is actually about. It’s about, ostensibly, putting characters where they don’t belong and watching what happens. It seems that your two options should be to execute it on a more premise-based level and go to Germany and Italy and Czechoslovakia in the second act (which is to say, 30 minutes earlier), or go character-heavy and show how these people grow and change in their few short weeks in one confined location. Instead, we get 85 minutes of not changing in a confined location, 5 minutes of changing, and 20 minutes of action at the end.
It’s funny to realize that then-raunchy adult comedies like Animal House and Stripes basically created the genre of G-rated 80s and 90s movies about lovable gangs of misfit kids who beat the odds and take down the private schoolers. But I’d argue that a film like The Mighty Ducks is actually better suited to that formula than Stripes; there’s more for the characters to learn, it’s not as jarring or unrealistic for them to grow and change, and winning a hockey game is an appropriate amount of stakes for a movie about a bunch of 12-year-olds who play hockey. In Stripes, however, you’re dealing with defiant and apathetic 30-year-olds with deeply entrenched characters, so there’s no payoff when they graduate or learn to rescue someone. It’s just plot.
Bill Murray is great, as always, but he tries to carry too much of the film, and apathy is a tough thing to be active about. Ramis has more energy, but less ambition, and the supporting cast doesn’t do much to help. John Larroquette’s character makes absolutely zero sense, and Ramis and Murray’s MP girlfriends are sadly and predictably zero-dimensional.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out that girls don’t act in real life the same way they do in early Harold Ramis movies.
All in all, Stripes is at best an amiable-if-not-funny story of a bunch of morons who succeed in a surprisingly under-satirized version of the military, and at worst a comedy that fails because of its insistence on getting to know its characters and letting them be themselves, even if that means they don’t do much. Neither of which a bad thing, necessarily. But when you see that much wasted potential, and you see what’s waiting on the other side of this lanky sophomore’s high school years, you just want to get to the good stuff.
It gets better, high school kid. It gets better. You’re going to be a Ghostbuster!