It should have been the happiest day of Judy Benjamin's (Goldie Hawn) life as she got married for the second time to Yale (Albert Brooks), a successful businessman who could provide for her, just what she had wanted ever since she was a little girl. The wedding went well, with much dancing afterwards, and if she wasn't so sure about giving her new husband a blowjob in the back of the limousine while everyone celebrated inside, then it was a small price to pay for a contented marriage. But Yale was more than a little sex mad, and when he insisted on it in the bathroom that night, it was more than his heart could take...
Private Benjamin was a big hit in 1980, but not with everyone, as the establishment tended to see it as a sappy sitcom out of place on the big screen - in spite of the blue humour that did not translate to the resulting, and invevitable, television version the following year. Either that or it was regarded as a recruiting film for the U.S. Army, in spite of how the military is depicted: it was interesting to compare it to the more masculine-oriented Stripes which followed hot on its heels, a film which took a far less ironic look at the forces, and indeed was far less critical of it than anything in the Goldie Hawn movie.
So while Stripes ends with all the misfits standing up for Uncle Sam and giving the Commies what for, Private Benjamin took a different tack, and though they both depicted the soldier's life as an improving experience, here it was another step on the path to independence for Judy. After Yale dies, she is distraught as her big plans fall apart at the seams, but a chance phone call to a radio station at the height of her depression leads her to join up, swallowing all the guff about the sweet time that she would have there from the recruiting sergeant (Harry Dean Stanton). The main joke is, at the beginning at any rate, that Judy has been so pampered that she is a hopeless fit in the army, and Hawn was rarely better cast.
That could have been a lot to do with her being one of the producers, and being well aware of the roles which played to her strengths. Needless to say, she garners some easy laughs from Judy's pathetic attempts to toughen up, and she was well-matched in the actress playing her Captain, Lewis, for she was the great Eileen Brennan, highly amusing in her unimpressed reactions to Benjamin's initial tries at wriggling out of her new job. The first scene they share together, where Judy whines her way through her list of complaints to Lewis's barely comprehending but apparently polite expressions is a gem of comic timing and acting, and the pair build on that tetchy relationship throughout to winning effect.
It's true that the funniest sequences are in the first half, because it is there the cast seem their most comfortable, but the second half is by no means a dead loss. It's just that once Judy falls in love again, it could be any romcom until the final act where she is challenged to ask herself whether what she always wanted is really what is the best for her. The object of her affections is Henri (Armand Assante with an accent), a French one night stand who becomes a lot more when Judy is posted to Paris. The script is too intent on seeing her let down at every turn, so the Army proves corrupt on a petty level that prevents her getting as far as she should, and her love life is the source of much heartache, but Hawn proved such a plucky presence that she carried the plot through its somewhat cruel developments as Judy is forced to stand on her own two feet. It wasn't the best comedy of the eighties, but there was more worth in it than its detractors would have had you believe. Music by Bill Conti.