Surprisingly big and with a seemingly permanent smirk on his face, Bill Murray was never a conventional film star. He looks as if he could play heavies or hulking dim-witted sidekicks. But on “Saturday Night Live,” he made it a point not to play “characters.” Instead, no matter what the sketch started out as, the moment Murray appeared you knew it was going to go off into a completely different direction.
Murray was a more accessible Andy Kaufman, the “SNL” guest performer who seemed to revel in making audiences find the joke. Like Kaufman, Murray let you in on the fact that you were watching a live show. He let you in on the joke of show business, but Murray wasn’t as alienating. He was charming. Unlike, say, Steve Martin’s absurdist-deconstructionist style of comedy, Murray’s too-cool-for-school approach is what made him so appealing to both aging middle-class Boomers who were nostalgic for their raising-hell youth and their always-questioning Gen-X kids.
This was evident with the surprise success of “Meatballs,” a quickie cheap Canadian production designed to showcase Murray. Released during the summer of 1979, “Meatballs” was the sleeper hit that more than held its own against such major releases as “Alien,” “Rocky II,” and “Escape from Alcatraz.” The movie was thin on character and plot, little more than a series of loosely strung together gags involving hot-dog eating contests and relay races, with Murray as the coolest camp counselor ever. That’s why young people kept returning to the movie all summer. The following year brought “Caddyshack,” a raucous underdog sports comedy set in the laid-back world of golf. The movie was sold as a Chevy Chase vehicle, but it was the scene-stealing supporting performances by Rodney Dangerfield (as a wealthy, cheerfully vulgar club member) and Bill Murray that made it memorable. As Carl Spackler, the dedicated groundskeeper doing battle with a gopher, Murray gives a masterful performance in minimalist physical comedy. Carl’s slapstick war against a rodent became a movie-within-the-movie, a stoner comedy minus the drugs, with Murray’s mystical focus anchoring the ridiculousness. Murray emerged as the de facto star of “Caddyshack,” and by the time “Stripes” made his leading man status official one year later, his first-billed name on the poster felt like a formality—or a coronation.
What makes this set-up different is the way the movie views the character of John Winger. In the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, John was seen as a free-spirit, the kind of character Jack Nicholson portrayed in movies like “Easy Rider” (1969) and “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), or Bud Cort played in “Brewster McCloud.” Audiences would have identified completely with his desire not to be tied down. The questioning of authority would be seen as a righteous cause. Even if the character failed, he failed for the right reason. Now, a character like that is viewed as having a “problem.” We are always on the side of Murray as the insubordinate wiseass, but we are also made to feel that what’s missing from his life is discipline. Like Judy Benjamin in the previous year’s “Private Benjamin,” Winger needs to learn the value of “respect,” and a comically hard-ass father-figure drill instructor is just the person to teach him. “Stripes” follows the trajectory of a traditional service comedy. But Bill Murray is the wild card. For a while he lets us know he’s in a service comedy.