Endless Bummer: Meatballs (1979)

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Imagine, if you will, a “Ghostbusters 3” in the early 90s that was, rather than comedy made by some of the funniest people ever, a cheap stupid sex romp. Because that’s what happened to “Meatballs” – same director (Ivan Reitman), same star (Bill Murray), one of the same writers (Harold Ramis). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! “Meatballs 3” is yet to come.

 

“Meatballs” basically sets the template for not only every “summer camp” movie, but every comedy set at a resort of any kind – mountains, beaches, you name it. Murray is Tripper, the head counsellor at Camp North Star, and he lives in squalor, with graffiti on the walls, clothes and food containers everywhere…but he has a heart of gold too.  Camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace) feels out of place and Tripper takes him under his wing, helping him out and building up his confidence; Tripper also has to “supervise” the other counsellors, most of whom appear to have some level of competence at their jobs. Compare this to later movies, where the counsellors are only there to get drunk and have sex, and it’s weirdly refreshing.

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One other crucial bit of template setting is largely ignoring the kids – we get a few scenes where it looks like some of the actual campers are going to get a storyline, but after the halfway point we barely see them again (apart from Rudy). Perhaps for the best, after this exchange as Murray is showing the counsellors round:

“Alright, this is the 14 year old girls cabin. They have the drive and the equipment, but they don’t have the experience. They better not get it from you guys. Not this summer, anyway, huh?”

With this scene, and the one where Tripper, rejected by love interest Roxanne (Kate Lynch), pins her down, refuses to leave or let her leave and then wrestles her as she’s shouting at him to stop, the best you can say is that it’s a product of its time? The anti-Polish joke and mild homophobia are just the icing on the cake.

 

But I don’t want you to think it’s that awful a movie – it’s got tons to recommend it, still. First up is how, for all I’ve just said, there’s reasonably equality in this movie. No nudity, no women feeling like they have to have sex with some sleazy asshole, the female counsellors pass the Bechdel Test, and the reasonably unglamorous cast dresses in roughly the same thing – bell-bottom jeans or short shorts , plus camp t-shirts. It’s pleasant to see, and adds to the gentle, hang-out comedy vibe the whole movie puts out. With a lesser star, you’d be too busy worrying about stuff like “what does this slob do when the camp isn’t open?” or “why does this movie have no plot, really?”

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After making a joke of how much they’re ignoring the kids (all the counsellors go on an overnight camping trip on their own), the plot wraps up with an “Olympiad” between Camp North Star and Camp Mohawk, where Rudy has to save the day by running a marathon against Mohawk’s finest – in a scene which goes on for ages and has no music til right at the end, feeling quite weird to my modern sensibilities. There’s cheating, there’s a guy winning a wrestling match by using pro wrestling moves…Then most everyone pairs off at the end – even Spaz, the nerdy guy!

 

Bill Murray was in the middle of his tenure on “Saturday Night Live” when he made this, and this is his first starring role. He’s obviously brilliant, visibly cracking up the other campers during his big rousing speech at the end (a speech which boils down to “it doesn’t matter if we win or not”, a great touch), and I get the feeling director Reitman just leaned back and let him do his thing as often as possible. He was so good that they shot extra scenes with him and Makepeace after principal photography had ended, which means the rest of the cast feel a little underdeveloped; which is a shame, as it would have been refreshing to see more of the girls just be funny with each other.

 

It’s also filmed at a real summer camp, all the extras were real campers and counsellors, and the scene shot at the “Parents Visit” day was really shot at that camp’s “Parents Visit” day. It’s a perfect example of a movie making it look like it’s got a bigger budget by shooting real events and inserting themselves into it, and it adds up to a great look. If you’re desperate to see what the same camp looks like in 2008, then Disney’s “Camp Rock” filmed there too.

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It’s a surprisingly mellow, funny comedy, with none of the “we need to save the camp from the evil developers” storyline that would become a staple of the genre in the 80s (and is the plot of the sequel). It’s also, oddly, the first film Ivan Reitman directed after 1973’s “Cannibal Girls” – the improvised slasher movie we covered and enjoyed – as he spent most of the 70s producing horror, including a couple of early David Cronenberg movies.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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