What looks like “Stripes” in its TV campaign actually has more in common with “Dead Poets Society” or even “To Sir With Love,” featuring Danny DeVito as the reluctant teacher of eight dense-but-good-hearted Army recruits. As a result, this bittersweet comedy presents a real marketing challenge, one offering plenty of crowd-pleasing elements but also carrying enough fat to weigh down its box office prospects.
Actually, the movie Disney doubtless wants to emulate is “Sister Act,” another star-driven, fish-out-of-water comedy that cruised to hit status during summer 1992.
Despite its appealing moments, however, the analogy doesn’t quite hold. For one thing, pic runs more than two hours; director Penny Marshall risks overstaying her welcome, pursuing subplots relating to practically each of DeVito’s charges, when one or two might have sufficed.
What the pic needed was a clearer focus, or a more ruthless hand in the editing room. As is, highlights are too often followed by lulls of inactivity or feel-good moments that cause the narrative to drag.
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DeVito plays Bill Rago, an advertising executive who suddenly loses his job and is forced to take a temporary gig teaching a group of Army underachievers. The idea, not warmed to by the group’s sergeant (Gregory Hines), is that having more smarts will make the group bettersoldiers.
Uncertain where to begin, Rago stumbles onto the idea of teaching the kids Shakespeare, gradually winning them over and becoming involved in their various hard-luck stories. As a civilian, the teacher also has little use for military discipline, providing some broad comedic strokes through his occasional skirmishes with Army brass.
Marshall showed how adept she can be at mixing comedy with poignant moments in “Big,” and first-time writer Jim Burnstein’s semi-autobiographical script hardly leaves a heart string unplucked or an Army joke unlaunched.
It’s often a long trek between those moments, however, making the movie feel more like a stroll in the woods than a forced march. In short, Marshall has tried to do too much, dealing with certain subplots too sparingly to deliver on their promise.
If Rago is agonizing about going back to the advertising world, for example, the conflict isn’t fully communicated to the audience. Similarly, a possible relationship with a female officer turns up as an afterthought, to the point where one wonders why it was introduced at all. That said, DeVito is such an engaging character that “Renaissance Man” generates its share of laughs, and the filmmakers have done a terrific job casting the eight recruits with fresh faces who bring the film an inordinate amount of energy.
Lillo Brancato Jr. emerges as the principal scene-stealer, playing the Brooklyn-born Benitez, but Kadeem Hardison (from TV’s “A Different World”) is also a hoot, and rapper Mark Wahlberg (aka Marky Mark), making his movie debut, has the properly addled look of a good ol’ country boy.
Richard T. Jones and Khalil Kain prove equally effective in more serious turns as a onetime football star and promising student whom Rago tries to take under his wing.
On the flip side, Hines and James Remar seem miscast (their roles, in fact, probably could have been flip-flopped) as the stern drill sergeant and overworked captain, failing to provide strong foils for DeVito.
Tech credits are solid, with a particularly strong and eclectic music score. Too bad other drawbacks prevent the pic, despite its various pleasures, from being all that it could be.