Dir: Ivan Reitman, 1979. Starring: Bill Murray, Harvey Atkin, Chris Makepeace, Jack Blum. Comedy.

Thirty-something years later, the little Canadian gem Meatballs is still the quintessential rowdy summer camp movie. It’s one of those flicks that if you saw it for the first time as a kid you still love, while later generations may have a hard time getting into its '70s groove. In his first real post Saturday Night Live break out role, Bill Murray carries Meatballs as the camp's head counselor. He and director Reitman would go on a comic rampage with their next couple of films, dominating early '80s comedy. This was an era in movies when nerds were nerds, everyone just wanted to get laid, and sexual harassment was considered comedy not bad behavior. For my generation this was the film that made you fantasize about going to summer camp, an unfulfilled fantasy I still carry.

Meatballs goes for an Altman-like ensemble, splitting between the counselors and the young campers at Camp North Star. But two characters eventually become the main focal point, the goofy but charismatic head counselor, Tripper (Murray), and a wimpy first time camper, Rudy (Chris Makepeace who plays almost the exact same character a few years later in the equally memorable My Bodyguard). Most of the counselors and their love life issues are interchangeable, except for the often cruelly pathetic escapades of ultra nerd Spaz (Jack Blum) and his overweight buddy Larry Finkelstein (Keith Knight who later played a tough punk in Class Of 1984). Spaz’s goal is "scoring" but in a sweet moment he does find some satisfaction in holding a girl's hand.

Tripper is all about pranks, whether it’s on his flustered boss, Morty (Harvey Atkin, more famous as a big time animation voice-over guy), or their rivals, the more upscale Camp Mohawk. Tripper settles for light flirting when it comes to his potential love interest, Roxanne (Kate Lynch). He also takes shy Rudy under his wing, helping to give him confidence and bring him out of his shell, even giving Rudy the job of making the camp intercom announcements when all the counselors go on a mini-vacation (who looks after the kids when they do this?).

For Murray Meatballs was a warm-up of greatness to come. Meatballs showcases his more floppy spastic form - he toys with the distant, sarcastic style that in later years would be his anchor. Reitman would follow up Meatballs with Stripes and then Ghostbusters; both would be massive hits and cement Murray as one of the big comedy dogs of his generation. While others from his generation of SNL stars would fade into comic mugging, thanks to later generations of young indie directors, Murray would reinvent himself as one of the most reliable and interesting character actors of recent decades (from Rushmore to Lost In Translation).

With very little quality competition Meatballs is probably the greatest summer camp movie of all time, a genre that has had better results with documentaries and MTV specials. Forgetting some of the mostly terrible Friday The 13th movies, the next best flicks would be the female orientated The Parent Trap (both the original and the remake) and Little Darlings. Starring Tatum O’Neal, Kristy McNichol, and Matt Dillon, Little Darlings is a surprisingly positive film about girls competing to lose their virginity (it's still not available on DVD in the United States).

Besides the numerous rip-offs, Meatballs also produced three unrelated and barely released sequels. The lack of artistic success of most summer camp films in comparison to the delight of Meatballs can be traced to the presence of Bill Murray. Every moment Murray is on screen leaves a smile on audience’s faces. His zany spirit and rogue charm are infectious. Murray plays both the rebel rouser and the role model to Rudy (those one-on-one scenes were filmed later after principle photography was completed, which explains why Murray’s hair looks much different). So if nothing else, Meatballs was a great introduction to the unique career that Murray was just beginning to develop and would eventually make him one of the most original talents filmdom has known.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 20, 2011 2:15pm
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