Private Benjamin (1980)

(In French, On TV, July 2017) I was originally tempted to launch this review by comparing Private Benjamin to the 1981 Bill Murray comedy Stripes, but it’s a comparison that only goes so far: While both movies follow a similar structure in transforming their protagonist from a civilian zero to a military hero, they do look at the same subject from very different perspectives. While Stripes is more of a goofy slob-power fantasy, Private Benjamin is largely about the self-empowerment of a young woman cast adrift. And that carries an entirely different tone, much like the fact of this being a female-led film does lend it a distinctive comic flavour. It does work … but much of the impact of the comedy seems blunted by the intention to have it mean something more. Behind the laughs, and to the conclusion of the movie, Private Benjamin is about tough choices that may or may not lend themselves to giggly laughs. As such, there’s a tension at the heart of the film between Goldie Hawn’s more overtly comic moments (“the army with the condos and the private rooms!”) and its more serious intention of resisting male domination. (But then again this is a movie about a woman whose husband dies on top of her on their wedding night.) It works, but it doesn’t quite click. Some of the material in the beginning is audacious; some of the material in the middle is funny; some of the material at the end is depressing. Hawn herself is great, and she’s supported by a good cast that has an early appearance by Armand Assante. This is one of the rare cases when a remake may be interesting—Most of the themes remain contemporary, and I’m not sure that nearly forty years have changed much in the way women are integrated in US military forces.

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