Friday 12 July 2019

Movie Review: Private Benjamin (1980)

A comedy and romance about life's twists and turns and resultant decision points, Private Benjamin combines army humour with a worthwhile story about finally growing up.

In Philadelphia, 26 year old Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) is a spoiled princess from a rich family, about to get married for the second time. But new husband Yale (Albert Brooks) expires during intercourse on their wedding night, sending Judy into a depression. She is lured into volunteering for the army by a recruiter (Harry Dean Stanton) selling her a vision of private waterfront rooms and yachts.

Instead, Judy finds herself in Biloxi, Mississippi, undergoing six weeks of basic training under the command of Captain Doreen Lewis (Eileen Brennan) and Drill Sergeant Ross (Hal Williams). She wants to quit and her parents (Sam Wanamaker and Barbara Barrie) arrive to take her home. But Judy experiences a last minute change of heart and decides to tough it out, changing her life's trajectory and leading to a romance with suave French doctor Henri Tremont (Armand Assante).

Close to her stardom peak, Goldie Hawn co-produces, stars in and energizes a warm hearted comedy. Private Benjamin is an old-fashioned star vehicle, and Hawn owns every scene of her movie. From flighty and overindulged rich girl looking for a professional husband and an easy life to a hardened army graduate standing up for herself, Judy Benjamin's journey combines laughs with knowing commentary about redefining trajectories.

The comedy stems from the conflict in expectations between a self-proclaimed professional shopper and life in an army barracks, and director Howard Zieff places Judy in plenty of awkward situations to ram home her new reality. Cleaning toilets, endurance training and physical tussles with other volunteers create rich terrain for humour and evolution, while raising Judy's awareness that there may be more to life than choosing the perfect interior decorating fabric colour.

The film's third act is more serious and involves Judy's post-graduation posting in Europe, and the subsequent relationship with Henri. The departure from the earlier broad laughs and the abandonment of Judy's hard-earned gal-pals is a narrative risk. But co-writers Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller know what they are doing, because as the 1980s kick-off, women's empowerment extends beyond admittance to previously male-only domains and towards putting new found skills to practical use. Judy's journey is only satisfying when she starts navigating her life with a new sense of maturity and independence.

Eileen Brennan provides solid support as a tough but vulnerable Captain Lewis, who evolves from trainer to nemesis. Armand Assante is all smarmy charm as the latest seemingly safe catch luring Judy into old habits.

Private Benjamin joins the army to escape a personal tragedy and chase a fantasy, but discovers a bold new reality instead.

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