Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1979)

2. Meatballs

All quality aside, “Cannibal Girls” obviously made Ivan Reitman some money. Maybe horror wasn’t his genre. His next film was far more polished and ambitious, though still low budget by studio standards. “Meatballs” would gross thirty times its budget at the box office, launching Reitman’s career as a comedy director. He had some help. Behind the scenes, Harold Ramis co-wrote the screenplay. Already a comedy veteran early in his career, Ramis would become a vital collaborator for Reitman. More importantly, “Meatballs” put Bill Murray on movie screens, helping cement the legacy of one of the most beloved comedic performers of any age.

Camp North Star is a summer camp somewhere in Canada. And not an especially well regarded one. Tripper Harrison, a trouble maker and a prankster, leads a group of new in-training counselors. Not much older than the kids themselves, the counselors frequently get in trouble. Tripper befriends a lonely boy while the campers and counselors couple off and have adventures of their own. Soon, Tripper has to whip the kids into shape as a sports competition with a rival camp quickly approaches.

Do summer camps even really exist anymore? Seems like half the movies in the eighties were set at one. Low budget horror movies and low brow comedies both utilized camps as a frequent setting in the first half of the decade. It makes sense for each genre, as both utilize young people in an isolated setting. The success of “Meatballs” would lead to a subgenre of summer camp sex comedies. Titles like “Little Darlings,” “Poison Ivy,” “GORP,” “Oddballs,” “Party Camp,” and many others would attempt to ride this film’s coattails. Most of them upped the crude humor, the nudity, and the naughtiness while lacking the charms of the originator.

“Meatballs” does have something in common with “Cannibal Girls,” besides its director. Neither movie has much of a forward moving plot. “Meatballs” is far more disciplined than the previous film, as half of it seemingly wasn’t made up on the spot. Yet “Meatballs” is mostly about the day-to-day lives of the campers and counselors. The film isn’t much more than a collection of vignettes, detailing a different aspect of the summer camp experience. Eventually, the rivalry with the other camp imposes a structured plot on the film. While a lack of focus made “Cannibal Girls” feel rambling and shapeless, the same attributes makes “Meatballs” charming and pleasant.

For a teenage sex comedy, “Meatballs” is fairly wholesome. There’s no nudity, the only sex scene happens off-screen, and the MPAA gave it a PG rating. Maybe the lack of skin is because most of the cast is actually pretty young. On the other hand, it’s also appropriate. Most of the kids in “Meatballs” have only recently reached teen-hood. One of the female campers has just had her first period. These young people haven’t had sex yet. Which doesn’t stop them from thinking about it constantly. The boys admire the female counselors often. There’s much discussion about “doing it” and “fooling around.” Yet holding hands is the furthest any of the kids get. The film successfully captures the frustrated, horny mood of people that age, when sex is mysterious and naughty but in an oddly innocent way.

Of course, none of the above reasons have much to do with “Meatballs’” success. Bill Murray was still filming “Saturday Night Live” while he was working on this film. Reitman and his team didn’t know if Murray was going to be in the movie until he showed up on the first day of filming. (Even during his early days, Bill followed his own whims.) The care-free, laid back tone would provide ample opportunities for Murray to show off his unique and far reaching abilities. He’s introduced stumbling out of bed, making up an absurd morning announcement. Similarly nonsensical announcements are peppered throughout the film. He rambles off a bizarre, salacious version of what will happen at camp to a nosy TV reporter. Murray’s rendition of the Hook around a camp fire is another memorable moment. Muray’s screen presence is such that even a potentially uncomfortable scene, where he tinkles his love interest into a compromising situation, goes down easy because of Murray’s infinite charm.

Like many similarly themed camp comedies, the characters in “Meatballs” are archetypes. They’re designed to be simple, so that everyone in the audience has someone they can relate too. Of the campers, my favorites are Spaz and Fink. Fink is the fat kid, compensating for his social awkwardness with misplaced confidence. Spaz, meanwhile, is a stereotypical nerd. That includes the taped glasses, the pocket protector, and the high-waised pants. The shenanigans they get into are not outside what you’d expect. Fink gets stuck under the girl’s cabin while spying on them and quickly de-pants afterwards. Spaz leers openly at an attractive girl in a swim suit and clumsily tosses a tennis racket around. Yet there’s a little more to them than that. Fink later wins a hot dog eating competition. Spaz wins the heart of a cute girl. They may be unflattering stereotypes but they’re stereotypes who win in the end. Jack Blum and Keith Knight both do fine work in the parts.

Probably the most touching element of “Meatballs” involves Rudy, as played by the awesomely named Chris Makepeace. Rudy is introduced sitting by himself in a crowd. He has no friends and seems withdrawn from the other kids. Later, he admits that he doesn’t necessary want to be there. Tripper immediately takes an interest in the boy. When no one else notices him, Murray plays cards with the boy or talks with him. He instills on him his own brand of wisdom. Soon, the two start going on runs, a skill that pays off at the end. While no less high concept than the rest of the film, these scenes have a genuinely sweet tone. Makepeace has some rough edges as an actor but he plays off Murray really well.

As a film with a wide cast, not everyone in “Meatballs” gets much development. Most of the girls are defined by their appearances. There’s the one with glasses, the tom boy, the hot blonde, etc. I can’t say I cared much about a subplot concerning Candance and Crockit, two of the counselors-in-training, and their growing romance. Of the supporting cast, Kate Lynch as Murray’s love interest makes the most positive impact. Lynch is cute, plays off Murray very well, and has a girl-next-door charm of her own.

In its latter half, “Meatballs” becomes something of a sports movie, showing the various competitions between Camp North Star and Camp Mohawk. On one hand, this is typical material. Team North Star frequently get hosed by the athletically superior Mohawk. That is, when the rival team aren’t straight up cheating. Yet “Meatballs” also has a subversive side. After being beaten at basketball, the North Star team yank down the rival team’s shorts. One of the attempts by the Mohawkers to cheat, during a cup carrying contest, backfires in the heroes’ favor. North Star are underdogs and, after loosing a few games, the team is bummed out. In a stunning display of Murray-esque humor, Tripper informs the kids how meaningless the games really are. He leads them in a chant of “It just doesn’t matter!” Considering many comedies are willing to play such material as life-or-death scenarios, “Meatballs” utter irrelevance is refreshing.

Of course, the movie has it both ways. The characters may cheer about it just not mattering, yet the outcome of games still informs the story’s climax. Rudy’s running habit results in him being chosen to run the foot race, the final step of the competition. Naturally, during the race, the two are neck-in-neck. Both runners have missteps, sliding down a hill or tripping. In the end, Rudy comes out ahead, just barely. The other campers lift him onto their shoulders, cheering in celebration. So much for it not mattering, huh? Yet “Meatballs” kind of earns it. The movie is laid back and relaxed enough, you want to see the heroes succeed.

One aspect of “Meatballs” I can’t recommend is the incredibly cheesy soundtrack. The songs are all inane and goofy, in a markedly different way from the rest of the movie. “Are You Ready for Summer?” is sung by a choir of squeaky-voiced kids. The title song, “Meatballs,” has some especially grating vocals. The love theme, “Moondust,” is painfully earnest. “Good Friend,” the heroic theme, has much of the same problem. Elmer Bernstein’s score is unremarkable. You know things are bad when dusty disco hit, “Makin’ It” is the most memorable song on the soundtrack.

The stakes are pretty low in “Meatballs.” It’s a movie that doesn’t demand much of its viewers. The tone is kept silly and relaxed, going hand-and-hand with the barely-there plot. These aren’t complaints. Boosted by an infectiously fun lead performance and a solid grasp of tone by the director, “Meatballs” is a minor comedy classic. There’s a reason this became a cable favorite of so many people. In addition to many rip-offs, “Meatballs” also spawned three sequels, only one of which is directly related to this film and all of which are incredibly forgettable. [Grade: B]

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