STRIPES: How Reitman Ruled The Comedic Side Of The ’80s

This review is presented as a tribute to Ivan Reitman. He’ll always be an admired figure in the Halls Of Schlockmania because he played a key role in reinventing the comedy genre as the ’70s shifted into the ’80s. Working with SNL and SCTV alumni, he directed a trio of much-imitated comedies that would set the tone for celluloid laughs in the ’80s: Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters. This review will focus on Stripes, a gem that modern comedy filmmakers and stars could learn from.

The plot is simple but sturdy: John Winger (Bill Murray) is a clever but shiftless layabout. When his life falls apart for the umpteenth time, he decides to enroll in the army after seeing one of their inspirational commercials. He drags his best buddy Russell (co-writer and early SCTV cast member Harold Ramis) into the idea and they soon discover it is more than they bargained for, especially with tough-guy Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates) training them. The plot takes an interesting turn when Sgt. Hulka’s reign of terror is derailed by an accident and they have to take their training into their own hands.  Mayhem of political and comedic varieties ensues…

Stripes remains a joy to watch today because it harkens back to an era when people working in the comedy genre strove to make films that would do more than just make quick money. The sly script gives Murray plenty of room to do his thing but boasts a nice, expansive plotline that provides plenty of incidents to give its comedians a framework for their ad-libbing. Reitman directs the proceedings with confidence, bringing precise timing to the gags and even delivering some effective action at the end.  His work is enhanced by slick cinematography from Bill Butler, who deploys crane shots with skill, and a rousing orchestral score by the great Elmer Bernstein.

However, the most important element of Stripes is the cast. Murray carries the film with grace, earning laughs with his sharp comic timing instead of mugging the audience to get them. Equally worthy of notice is Ramis, who makes a great low-key foil for Murray and steals the occasional scene (watch his facial reactions while John Candy’s character introduces himself). That said, the most impressive performance in the film might be Warren Oates: he can yuk it up with the rest – his reaction to being accidentally bombed is hysterical – but he brings an unexpected amount of depth and intensity to what could have been another clichéd drill sergeant.

The backup cast is a who’s who of comedic greats: Candy, Joe Flaherty, John Larroquette, Dave Thomas, etc. Candy is the big scene stealer of the group, especially during an inspired setpiece involving mud wrestling at a nightclub. You also get Sean Young and P.J. Soles as the most attractive MP’s ever – and it’s a sign of the film’s sense of cool that they are smart, skilled professionals who play an equal role in the finale’s action.

All in all, Stripes is the kind of comedy we need more of today: a film that hits the right blend of story and gags, with enough ambition behind the camera to ensure that is as well-made as it is entertaining. Not only is it funny, it’s got style and it holds up to repeat viewings. Farewell, Mr. Reitman – and thank you for this celluloid gift that continues to give us joy decades later.

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