Chris Makepeace and Bill Murray in Meatballs.
Meatballs marked the feature film debut of Bill Murray, who stars as goofy head counselor Tripper at the underdog North Star Summer Camp. The events of one summer unfold through the highjinks of the wacky staff of counselors and CIT’s (counselors in training) and specifically the relationship between Tripper and an unpopular camper named Rudy (Chris Makepeace). The movie culminates in a two-day sporting competition with the wealthy neighboring camp. In between there are laughs galore, summer romances unfold, and adolescent growing pains are endured.
Anyone who ever attended a summer camp or worked at one will identify with Meatballs. It was filmed at a real summer camp in Ontario, Canada. It also perfectly captures the look and feel of the late 1970s. I have heard Meatballs called the summer camp equivalent of A Christmas Story and I quite agree. It has never been equaled by the numerous camp movies that have come since.
Although the poster makes Meatballs look like a teen sex romp it is really a sweetly sentimental movie that centers on the growing bond between Tripper and Rudy, the camper he takes under his wing for the summer. Thanks to the comic talents of Bill Murray his performance never gets treacly or cloying even when the story borders on it.
Although it had been nearly a quarter of a century since I last watched this movie, I could still quote many lines from it. My brothers and I watched Meatballs over and over when it played on HBO in the early 1980s. I’m really surprised it took almost 12 years into this site’s existence before one of us reviewed this classic summer camp comedy. It played such a significant part in all three movie buff’s adolescence that you will have to excuse me while I sentimentally gush on about this classic movie.
I still find myself quoting lines from Meatballs. One of my favorites is when Tripper announces, via the camp P.A. system, “Attention. Here's an update on tonight's dinner. It was veal. I repeat, veal. The winner of tonight's mystery meat contest is Jeffrey Corbin who guessed "some kind of beef."” Another of my favorite Murray lines comes near the end when he is discussing the upcoming inter-camp competition with Rudy. “The Egg Toss, probably the most punishing of all food related sports.” He also has a great scene in-which he gives an inspiring speech where he has everyone chanting, “IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!”
The comic duo of nerdy Spaz and fat kid Larry Finkelstein (Fink) provides some of the funniest moments. Spaz looks like a young Woody Allen with his trademark glasses, only with a piece of tape in the center of them. Nearly every nerd in movies since Meatballs has been influenced by Spaz in one way or another. Fink is every good-natured fat kid.
During a comically inspired tennis match between Spaz, Fink and two girls, Spaz loses control of his racquet while attempting to serve the ball and it flies across the net. One of the girls returns it to him, which causes Fink to remark, “Did you see the way she handed you the racquet? She wants it.” Later, on an overnight camping trip, Spaz spends some time alone in the woods and holds hands with the girl. Upon learning this, an impressed Fink says, “Spaz, you old make-out master. You're on your way!” They are both constantly thinking about sex but in such a sweetly innocent manner.
During this same camping trip Tripper tells a scary story around the campfire. It involves an escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand. After the story Spaz says he heard the same thing but that the guy was missing a foot. In another oft-quoted line in the Nash household Fink asks incredulously, “How could the guy have a hook on his foot?” It may not sound that funny but Keith Knight’s delivery is hilarious.
The original songs by Norman Gimbel and Elmer Bernstein add to the nostalgia. The exuberant “Are You Ready for the Summer?”, the funky title track, and the ballad “Moondust”, with its wistful lyrics, all contribute to the mood. Meatballs is that rare movie that completely lived up to my idyllic memory of it. It remains funny and touching and for me will always evoke a certain time and place in my childhood that few other movies can.
Bill Murray knows that it just doesn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money, in Meatballs.
If I were rating this movie purely on nostalgia I would certainly give it 4 stars. Like you Patrick I remember watching it repeatedly in the early 1980s. Also like you it had been quite a few years since I'd watched it but I could still quote huge chunks of dialogue from it along with the actors. It did stir up a lot of memories, but I can't in all honesty say that I think it deserves 4 stars.
The portions of the story that best stand the test of time are the sentimental ones. Tripper and Rudy's relationship provides the heart and the emotion. The way Tripper takes him under his wing and builds his confidence is very sweet and well done. Without the scenes of the two them together, either running or playing Black Jack for peanuts this would just be a silly summer camp comedy. Only in recent years has Bill Murray been playing more serious roles, but even in this, his first, he shows that he can do more than just straight comedy.
Not that he doesn't do some very funny stuff here, because he does. I enjoyed his impersonation of the program director for the ultra-rich Mohawk camp as he explains the program that they have for the campers, concluding with, "But, the real excitement of course is going to come at the end of the summer, during Sexual Awareness week. We import two hundred hookers from around the world, and each camper, armed with only a thermos of coffee and two thousand dollars cash, tries to visit as many countries as he can. The winner of course is named King of Sexual Awareness week and is allowed to rape and pillage the neighboring towns until camp ends." Patrick, you mentioned the mystery meat, but really almost all of the P.A. announcements are worth a laugh, such as "Important announcement - Some hunters have been seen in the woods near Piney Ridge trail and the fish and game commission has raised the legal kill limit on campers to three. So, if you're hiking today, please wear something bright and keep low."
Some of the humor though hasn't aged quite so well, or maybe it's just that with age some of the humor just doesn't seem as funny. And how innocent it all seems now! This is no teen sex comedy although at 11 and 12 I remember thinking it was risque. There's no nudity, very little swearing and remarkably little sex. I'm not saying that as a complaint, more as an observation of how my views have changed in 30 years.
As you said Patrick, this movie captures the 1970s. It was a less polished and less plastic time. The actors all look like real people. Even the cute female camp counselors look attainably cute rather than perfectly put together plastic surgery creations. It definitely adds to the nostalgia factor.
I never attended a summer camp or worked at one, but thanks to this movie I've always felt like I knew what it would have been like. And you know, after seeing this movie at that age, the real thing probably would have just been a disappointment anyway.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1979)