Sunday, July 13, 2008

Invading Czechoslovakia

A number of years ago I worked on a DVD project related to a film produced by Ivan Reitman. The interviews conducted included one with Reitman associate Danny Goldberg and at one point he made a comment that they had been working on the film we were talking to him about “at the same time we were writing STRIPES.” At that point all I could think was, “I’m in the same room as one of the guys who wrote STRIPES?” For some reason, the moment had a particular effect on me. Danny Goldberg seemed like a great guy, a true mensch…and he wrote STRIPES. Some films just cause you to stop in your tracks that way.

Opening night of Diablo Cody’s Mondo Diablo festival at the New Beverly, where STRIPES was showing with Jason Reitman’s THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, kicked off in a rambling style. A few minutes late, Diablo made her introductions, told us there would be a Q&A after STRIPES (SMOKING was scheduled to run first), then after several comedy trailers from another time (WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S, COMING TO AMERICA, PARENHOOD and Reitman Sr.’s DAVE) THANK YOU FOR SMOKING began. About two minutes into the credits, the film stopped and we were informed that STRIPES really was going to run first. Fine with me, since that was the one I really wanted to see anyway. It was my first theatrical viewing of the film and the 35mm print looked beautiful.

STRIPES feels like the talents involved are still being developed. The narrative isn’t much to comment on, it peaks too soon and the whole thing feels choppy, as if it was cut to the laughs, which it probably was. None of that matters. STRIPES is still a hysterically funny movie, one of Bill Murray’s best “Bill Murray” performances and at its best remains scrappy, likable and never forgets how funny it’s supposed to be. Yes, the whole third act where they take the souped-up EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle to invade Czechoslovakia is forgettable to the point that you almost forget about it while it’s happening, but you can’t help but feel good as the soldiers march off, singing “Doo Wah Diddy” one more time as the credits roll. Elmer Bernstein’s score, easily the best of all the ones he did for eighties comedies, adds to this likability a great deal and in many ways acts as the glue holding the film together more than anything.

Bill Murray really is a force of nature here and there’s no point in listing all his best moments in the film but his pep talk to his fellow soldiers (“We’re American soldiers. We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years—we’re ten and one!”), while obviously this film’s version of the “It just doesn’t matter!” speech from MEATBALLS, is right up there. Some of the other actors, like Harold Ramis and John Larroquette, still feel like they’re developing their comic styles but it’s consistently enjoyable to see Ramis amusing himself at the edges of the frame and Larroquette blurting out “Where the fuck’s my truck?” makes me laugh out loud. John Candy’s comic persona, in comparison, already feels fully formed and he gets laughs from his very first moment onscreen (“Stewardess, is there a movie on this flight?”) which is just the start of how much his presence makes the movie even funnier than it already is. Also managing to stick out in the large cast with a fully-drawn character is John Diehl as the idiot Cruiser, who gets some great bits with Candy. P.J. Soles and Sean Young may not be very believable as Military Police, but considering how cute they are, who cares. Ramis and Young have particularly good chemistry, making me think that someone should cast them as husband and wife in something now. Warren Oates, as Sgt. Hulka (“Lighten up, Francis”), is a great rock to have at the center of the movie and it’s to Reitman’s credit that he resisted making the character a simple cardboard bad guy. Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty have cameos, a very young Timothy Busfield is “Soldier with mortar” and according to the credits Bill Paxton is in there somewhere as a soldier but I haven’t spotted him.

The film was followed by a Q&A with Diablo Cody and Ivan Reitman, with Jason Reitman hanging out off to the side for no particular reason. Along with discussing the challenges of directing Bill Murray, Reitman Sr. talked about how the film began life as a Cheech & Chong vehicle, but their manager made ridiculous financial demands and Cheech apparently never knew about it until years later. Much of the drug humor written for that version survived in the form of Judge Reinhold’s stoner character, but a lot of what they shot for him wound up getting cut out. Most of the film, including all the European stuff, was shot in Kentucky with some additional photography in L.A. Reitman also acknowledged the film’s structural problem in that it really climaxes with the graduation ceremony and what follows isn’t as good as the first half. This was something they were aware of even while they were writing the screenplay and he said that based on this issue, for years afterward when in developing the scripts for his films, he would always allude to STRIPES in terms of trying to plot out the climax by saying “How are we going to invade Czechoslovakia?” I guess it’s this line of thinking that leads to Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men. Of course, the subject of the amount of casual topless nudity came up as well. For his part, Jason offered that his earliest memory is being on the scoring stage for the movie as Elmer Bernstein worked and pointed out something that actually occurred to me while watching the film, which was a very slight structural similarity to FULL METAL JACKET, then still six years in the future.

I didn’t stay for THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and I also didn’t try to go up to Diablo Cody but at one point I did find myself standing next to Edgar Wright and I brought up his recent VENOM commentary at the Trailers From Hell site (I could have mentioned fifty other things to Wright, but this was what came to mind. Hey, at least it was current). After talking about VENOM with him for a few minutes I ended by saying that SHAUN OF THE DEAD is the best film of the decade. He waved that off dismissively but, well, it is. I’ll probably wind up saying it if he find myself talking to him again. Which, considering how many times I’ve already seen Edgar Wright at the New Beverly, could be very soon. To quote a character from another well-known Ivan Reitman film, I love this town.


Unknown said...

Great movie. I used to have it on video when I was a child and watch over and over again. Funny thing was that I now recall that I seldom watched the second half. Still, great movie and great benchmark Murray and Candy movie.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

The first half is so good it almost doesn't matter that the second half is a little lacking. It's not even that it's bad--you just wind up never needing to see it as much. Still, it's such a funny movie.

Unknown said...

Nice write-up. This is still my fave Bill Murray film. He is just so good and his reactions to what other characters say to him get me every time. You are right about the problems with the film's structure. But as you say, the first part is just so good that it really doesn't matter.

I also thought it genius to cast Warren Oates as Murray's antagonist. The scene they have in the barrack washroom is incredible. It isn't played for laughs which throws off the rhythm of the film in a good way. You mentioned the possible structural parallels to FULL METAL JACKET, there is also a barracks washroom confrontation in that film as well!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Somebody really needs to program a double bill of STRIPES and FULL METAL JACKET. I think it would make both films even funnier than they already are. STRIPES should of course run first.

Unknown said...

Heh! You're right. That would be classic.