1979 - 99m.
Meatballs is significant for quite a few reasons. It marks the starring debut of "Saturday Night Live" funny man Bill Murray, is an early effort for director Ivan Reitman (maker of such classic comedic fare as Ghostbusters and Stripes), and it holds a bigger place of affection in the hearts of many in my age range who grew up in the 80's than it probably deserves. This isn't to say it's a bad little low-budget flick, but it's a pretty tame PG-rated romp that gets a lot of mileage out of its star's sarcastic energy and a mild running joke where camp owner Morty (Harvey Atkin) keeps waking up in strange places.
Reitman and Murray pretty much set the tone right away as our slovenly head counselor Tripper (Murray) groggily stumbles his way through the morning announcements before we're treated to a whole slew of mild slapstick (which includes panes of glass constantly being smashed by basketballs and the like) while a somewhat annoying chorus of children sings "Are you ready for the summer?" on the soundtrack.
Soon enough, the campers arrive at Camp North Star, which proves a lot of work for Murray and his crew. It's your usual camp hijinks as the script has your typical coming-of-age scenarios for the campers, has nerdy counselor Spaz (Jack Blum) attempting to get a girlfriend, contains a rivalry with across the lake Richie-rich Camp Mohawk, and ends with a competition finale that's standard in this type of flick. They've also thrown in a mildly dramatic angle of shy, lonely kid Rudy (Chris Makepeace) who is befriended by Tripper and given a chance to make friends and prove himself in a foot race. What's surprising, though, is the focus is shifted mostly to the counselors providing us with some unexpected moments of mature humour amongst all the silly jokes and uninspired shtick.
Your enjoyment of Meatballs hinges on a lot of things. Firstly, you have to be a fan of Murray. I'm talking early career, more unhinged Murray, though. If you loved him in stuff like Caddyshack or Stripes, you're sure to love him here. If you're looking for the more subtle performances of Lost in Translation and Rushmore, then you'll wonder how he got there from the clown he is here. You'll also be able to get more out of this if you actually had a summer camp experience as a kid. I certainly did, and it had enough embarrassing moments to make me hate it, but there were a few familiar memories tied to the script that made me smile - even if just a little.
This is definitely Murray's show. He's always at the forefront, mugging away for the camera like a maniac. In some scenes he even manages to overwhelm his co-stars. His best moment here is when, early on, he's interviewed while pretending to represent Mohawk - his description of what goes on there is quite amusing. Makepeace, who I mostly remember from My Bodyguard and Vamp, was making his film debut here and he's pretty forgettable - a trend he'd continue throughout most of his career. Blum, the younger brother of co-scripter Len, steals a couple of scenes as Spaz and veteran Canadian actor Atkins gets to play straight-man to all the juvenile hijinks. There's a pretty solid cast for a low-budget comedy like this with plenty of familiar faces (especially if, like me, you're from Canada).
Actually filmed at a real summer camp in Northern Ontario, and using real campers at times, Meatballs is a decent time that offers up enough good-natured charm and nostalgia to be watchable. It marked an interesting shift to comedy for Cannibal Girls director Reitman and he'd be behind some of the biggest hits of the 80's including Ghostbusters and Twins. Murray would go on to a solid career starring in many beloved comedies but, to me anyway, his most shining moment was his awesome cameo in 2009's Zombieland.
As these things go, Meatballs is one of the more agreeable summer camp flicks if you're willing to shut your brain off for 99 minutes. It's definitely better than the three sequels that followed it, though I do admit to enjoying the ridiculous 1984 follow-up (and its E.T. rip-off alien called "Meathead") as a guilty pleasure. (Chris Hartley, 9/29/12)
Directed By: Ivan Reitman.
Written By: Len Blum, Dan Goldberg, Janis Allen, Ivan Reitman.
Starring: Bill Murray, Harvey Atkin, Kate Lynch, Chris Makepeace.