Generation X is growing up, and we’re prematurely nostalgic for the Carter-Reagan era. Our taste in retro music shows it (look at the Schoolhouse Rock album), and our tastes in movies are catching up. The recent Executive Decision took care of our yearning for militaristic pulp, and now Sgt. Bilko is here to cash in on our nostalgia for The Jerk and Stripes.
I have a tiny but nagging affection for Sgt. Bilko. It’s the sort of unambitious comedy I might have enjoyed in junior high school, on cable TV. Yet it doesn’t have two original ideas to rub together, and most of it is ramshackle and lame. As usual, director Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) just points the camera at his cast, hoping they’ll do something funny. Steve Martin, stepping into the big shoes of Phil Silvers (who originated the role on TV in the ’50s), plays Sgt. Bilko as a cross between his Jerk and his Dirty Rotten Scoundrel. It’s a welcome break from Martin’s recent heartfelt sincerity. He has at least one vintage scene, dining in an elegant restaurant with a soldier in drag (don’t ask). In general, Martin seems invigorated, re-animated; he snaps to attention.
If only I could say the same of the movie. The plot is essentially a string of scams and cons leading up to a climax involving a hovering tank. (Large hovercrafts seem to be a trend lately — see Rumble in the Bronx.) For romance, Lynn and writer Andy Breckman throw in Bilko’s long-suffering fiancee (Glenn Headly, doing her best in a thankless role), who’s driven to distraction by the guy’s inability to commit. The rest of the cast, ranging from fresh talents Pamela Segall¹ and Darryl Mitchell to old hands Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman, are all Bilko’s straight men or foils. One actor, Austin Pendleton (the stuttering lawyer in My Cousin Vinny), starts to make an impression as an idiosyncratic tank technician, but he gets lost in the shuffle.
What’s comforting about Sgt. Bilko is also what’s annoying: We’ve seen it before, almost frame for frame, in every other service comedy, especially Stripes. That movie at least pitted its wise guys (Bill Murray and Harold Ramis) against one of the screen’s leading tough guys, Warren Oates. Here the tough guy is Phil Hartman, who just does “The Anal-Retentive Major.” The role needs a true hard-ass — say, Harvey Keitel. And something else haunts me. It seems impossible, but this is actually the first movie pairing of Martin and Aykroyd (the wild and crazy Festrunk brothers!). What should be historic ends up flat. Aykroyd could play a clueless authoritarian in his sleep, and that’s what he seems to do here.
Probably all Sgt. Bilko has going for it, aside from Martin’s deft touch, is that it brings you back to 1981. This is a movie to put on the shelf next to Caddyshack and Meatballs — comedies that Gen-Xers think fondly of, but really aren’t all that hilarious (watch them again now). The scary thing is that, fifteen years from now, the twentysomethings of 2011 may look back fondly on Sgt. Bilko.
¹Otherwise known as Pamela Adlon, who went on to greener pastures in Louis C.K.’s two TV series.