Acting on impulse takes us on journeys we may as well not have had. Stripes sees John Winger (Bill Murray) join the military on a whim. He is, quite literally, winging his life. That can only take a man so far. His girlfriend has left him, he has quit his job on a whim, he lives life without any real grasp of planning. He is not developing or growing, his girlfriend points that out rather immediately before she storms out. “All the plants are gonna die,” protests Winger. He is not wrong, but his reading of “…and then, depression sets in,” feels more like a stage direction smuggled into the feature than it does an actual act of dialogue. That is one of the many cheap gag issues found within Stripes, which relies on the chemistry of fine performers in poor roles.
Harold Ramis as a first-time English teacher for foreign students is, inevitably, a cheap grab bag of lifeless, brief flutters with what could technically be considered humour. Murray too suffers from this, an adopted “low-life character,” one patron of his taxi cab describes him. He is a photographer at heart and a driver by trade, but either way, it doesn’t matter. He eventually finds himself in the military. A few light laughs can be found in the back of this taxi cab, Murray crying, mimicking the effects of chugging a bottle of cough syrup and blindfolding himself. It’s all the charm Murray usually presents an effective feature, but it is bottled up for too long and the pay-off is limited. He is never not a charmer, but Stripes is a real test of his fundamental abilities as a likeable man who does not care for those around him.
As he parks his taxi in the middle of a road and saunters off to the other side of the street, audiences are set for the punchline. We cut away just as that moment should appear, back to Ramis and his underwhelming moments as the English teacher. Reitman cannot capture the spirited work he would provide in Ghostbusters, primarily because the humour is off-key or simply absent as it is at times in Stripes. There is a harsh tone to these people, and they are never rewarding to be around. Laughing at what happens to them is futile since it is so sluggish. Murray drops a pizza and has his car stolen, but he is mixing with the wrong crowd and gives the pizza to his girlfriend anyway, despite dropping it on the floor. It is barrel-scraping stuff at times, and even when he is whisked away to the military, the cast and crew are unable to conjure anything exceptional.
Even Murray struggles here, and there is something rather vague about Stripes. Its uninterested tone and the eventual rumblings of the Caddyshack mentality rub the wrong way. The dozy loser Murray portrays is not inherently interesting or even that likeable, he is just in the right place at the wrong time. Cheap laughs and lazy jokes, Stripes is never going to set the world on fire, but it cannot even grasp at the flawed characters it wishes to portray as victims of the hatred-fuelled system of New York City living. Cosy apartments and lifeless relationships cluttered inside of them, it is hard to feel bad for Winger, but dispensing the energy to actively dislike him is far too unnecessary too. He is nothing, and neither is Stripes.