If you never saw the original 1950s sitcom, Sgt. Bilko, the jaw-droppingly lame new Steve Martin movie, may strike you as a vaguely surreal experience. It’s not just that you won’t be laughing (though the audience I saw it with was as silent as the sound of one hand clapping). In all likelihood, you’ll sit through the entire movie without even getting the joke. To wit: How outrageous is Sgt. Ernie Bilko (Martin), the wackiest noncom in the Army? Why, he’s so outrageous he… plays golf! And organizes betting pools! And has the unspeakable temerity to lie to his superiors! Twenty-six years after M*A*S*H, in which Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould suavely spat in the face of every conceivable brand of military authority (those two played golf too — but they did it in the middle of a war), how can we possibly watch Sergeant Bilko run his petty, harmless, money-grubbing scams and do anything but yawn?
In the ’50s, Phil Silvers, with his priceless leer, played Bilko as an exuberantly cynical sly dog — he tossed off lines with a heartless growl — but that was back in a buttoned-down era, when the undermining of straitlaced military values still carried a satirical punch. By now, Bilko is a weightless comic creation, and Steve Martin, perhaps sensing this, drifts through the movie with a misplaced balletic goofiness. Amid the feeble ”subversive” japery, the central oddity of Sgt. Bilko is that Martin and his costar Phil Hartman, who plays a sadistic major, are both so temperamentally unsuited to faking square-shouldered machismo that in their blowhard spats, they come off as a couple of bitchy hysterics; they’re practically flirting with each other. Then again, in the age of ”don’t ask, don’t tell,” they may just have pointed the way toward how to put the sting back in service comedies.