'Sgt. Bilko' Misses The Target.
By Stacey Richter
THERE'S NOTHING WRONG with Sgt. Bilko, the latest in a flurry of made-from-TV-movies, but it gave me the creeps anyway. It tries too hard to be both touching and funny--you can see the effort in every frame. And it's not just the stock gags--the men in dresses, the pratfalls, a fat guy who's funny because he's fat (ha ha)--there's something else wrong here. Sgt. Bilko violates one of the sacred tenants of comedy, the one that says the funny guy must be something of an underdog. In this movie, the funny guys are the ones with power, and that makes them seem malicious.
Steve Martin plays Ernie Bilko, a freewheeling, rule-twisting cad who's transformed his platoon into a fun den and gaming parlor. His guys (and a token gal) race greyhounds around the base, play roulette until the wee hours and sleep until 10, all under the encouraging, conniving eye of Bilko. The base is supposedly run by Captain Hale (Dan Ackroyd, trudging through the same old performance) but Hale is just too damn wimpy; Bilko is the man really in charge.
In the TV series from the '50s, Bilko was played by Phil Silvers. The show was before my time, and I'm sorry to say I've never seen it, but I understand Silvers was a dumpy little man. Martin, on the other hand, with his tall, love-interest looks, is just too damn appealing. Everything comes so easily for him--the esteem of his men, the affection of his girlfriend, the outcome of his gambling schemes. I mean, this is Steve Martin. There's no struggle to his misbehavior--he pulls it off too smoothly. Instead of coming off as a mischievous kid disobeying the parental authority of the Army (stiff as it sounds, this does seem to be the rationale of the film), he comes off like a philandering spouse--a grown-up taking advantage of another grown-up.
The truth is, Martin seems like such a winner that all of his bad-boy malfeasance seems unnecessary and mean spirited. It's a sad moment when Wally, an upstanding recruit who's disappointed and appalled by Bilko's schemes, compromises his moral standards and turns back the odometer in the commander's car. This is meant to be a sign of his love for Bilko, but I got the feeling the poor boy had been corrupted at last.
What's more, the story itself is stupid. At times it achieves the so-stupid-it's-funny level, but that level requires far more intelligence than run-of-the-mill, fat-guys-are-funny-because-they're-fat humor, and the filmmakers just aren't up to it. There's a dismal plot line involving Thorn, a rival Army man who is, duh, a thorn in Bilko's side. All of Phil Hartman's natural talent is wasted here--his self-loving, man-about-town weariness is useless in this role--and he's wearing so much makeup I began to wonder if he might have a skin disease. Thorn's only purpose is to be bad; there's absolutely no nuance to the role, or to the story either, for that matter. It has the feel of a prolonged skit.
More dismal still is a romantic subplot involving Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko's girlfriend. Their whole relationship revolves around dumb, expository dialogue that tries, unsuccessfully, to explain why Rita stays with Bilko when he keeps jilting her at the altar. She claims it's because he's exciting, but girl, wake up and smell the perfume strips in Cosmo. Fighter pilots are exciting, criminals and musicians are exciting; middle-aged men who spend all their time gambling with teenage boys are warning signs. It's not just her low self-esteem that's demoralizing; Rita's character is so thinly drawn that it would take a genius to bring her to life. Headly tries her best, but her scenes with Martin are so wooden it's almost surreal. Are they in love? Have they even met before?
I'm sure a lot of people will like Sgt. Bilko. It's a perfectly workable piece of entertainment with appealing stars and some funny lines, but the whole enterprise reminds me of those fuchsia marshmallow peeps they sell this time of year. They look really yummy but actually, they don't taste like anything. They taste like air. A good comedy has some substance--the social satire of a Marx Brothers movie or the humanity of a good Woody Allen film. Sgt. Bilko, on the other hand, is just empty.
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