Meatballs (1979)

“You make one good friend a summer and you’re doing pretty well.”

You wouldn’t know it today by how little it’s discussed but, believe it or not, there was a time in which Meatballs seemed to be playing all the time and was completely ubiquitous in the experience of a kid cresting ten in the early eighties. This was a time, of course, in which John Belushi was still alive and the inaugural cast of Saturday Night Live had the muscle to burn up the box office. This was also a time in which HBO would shamelessly play, ad nauseam, anything that had achieved a PG rating throughout the day for the latchkey kids who had to entertain themselves before Mom and/or Dad came home to make dinner.

But Meatballs has sort of given way to history in the way that, say, the Groove Tube has. Most mark Bill Murray’s performance in Caddyshack as their earliest favorite if they can even see beyond the gigantic horizon that is Ghostbusters. Even a cult item like Where the Buffalo Roam, with its built-in interest due to the ever-widening legend of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, seems to get more ink these days than Meatballs.

And, to be sure, Meatballs is a complete trifle. Even as a summer hijinx movie, especially one co-written by the wittily acerbic Harold Ramis and directed by the equally irreverent Ivan Reitman, it’s pretty soft and inoffensive. Everything is kept tasteful; a quick mention of periods in the girls’ cabin, some innocuous riffing on how a girl can and can’t get pregnant, and some on-screen kissing that seems more wistfully sweet than something that could raise the temperature in the room. There is absolutely no hint of nudity and the most dangerous anatomical reference is in aid of a movie-ready softball strategy in the third act. Little wonder that the target audience of Meatballs recalls it a little more hazily than, say, National Lampoon’s Animal House or Stripes (both co-written by Ramis and the latter of which was directed by Reitman), two films that delivered the goods on the sex and the nudity.

But what Meatballs lacks in terms of the ribald excesses of its peers, it has more heart than any of those films combined. This is due, in large part, to Murray and Chris Makepeace, both making their film debuts. Without Makepeace’s Rudy Gerner, an awkward twelve year-old victim of shape-shifting puberty, Bill Murray’s Tripper Harrison would be nothing but a loud, immature wisenheimer. But in Gerner, Murray sees a pained, wounded kid who is understandably bad at soccer and whose dad is absent at Parents’ Day. And the way Murray takes him under his wing is truly the heart of the film. It is in those scenes that we see Makepeace workshopping for a similar turn in the following year’s My Bodyguard and Murray showing the kind of tenderness that would surprise audiences again and again throughout his career. And while it is all perfunctory and there are absolutely zero surprises anywhere to be found in Meatballs, there is something so special in the relationship between Murray and Makepeace that I’m completely charmed every time I put it on.

There are other things to admire in Meatballs. Kate Lynch’s Roxanne makes for an unusual and interesting romantic foil for Murray even if her character isn’t given much to do, and only a person with a heart of stone could dislike Harvey Atkin’s hapless camp director, Morty Melnick. All of the romantic couplings, while no better than sketch ideas, are handled with the right tone and temperature for the piece and the location, Ontario’s Camp White Pine, an actual functioning summer camp, lends some authenticity to the film. But mostly, I’ve just always been keen on how much Meatballs loves its characters which is likely one of the reasons it retains its charm 40 years later. Nobody is awful, nobody hits below the belt, and none of the outcast characters are really treated with scorn. And, ultimately, who can resist the film’s creaky-yet-effective populist bent with the scrappy underdogs of Camp North Star taking on the rich snobs of neighboring Camp Mohawk? These are the reasons why, when I want to kick off summer with a film that is a celebration of the kind of youthful magic that is only possible during the summer, I immediately go to Meatballs.

I may very well be on a quixotic quest to try and loftily immortalize this film. Watching it now, I can fully understand where Murray’s then-awkwardness as a performer having to star in his first vehicle can land him in very smug and unlikeable territory for some viewers. I can also agree that much of Meatballs is simply a vague series of ideas that are strung together just enough to make a movie. I can also appreciate how much of it would strike anyone raised on bawdier affair as old-fashioned pap; a film that never even attempts to get to first base. But for a slowly shrinking number of folks of my generation, Meatballs will be a forever young ode to adolescent awkwardness and as sweet as any great memory that was created therein. And that’s all it was ever aiming for.

Now I think I’ll go off and listen to Terry Blacks’s Moondust, thank you very much.

– Patrick Crain

Next week, I’ll look at the downside of summer camp with Friday the 13th Part 2. Stay safe, Camp North Star campers!

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