Meatballs (1979) / Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for some rude humor and language (probably PG-13 today)
Running time: 99 min.

Cast: Bill Murray, Chris Makepeace, Harvey Atkin, Kate Lynch, Russ Banham, Kristine DeBell, Sarah Torgov, Jack Blum, Keith Knight, Cindy Girling, Todd Hoffman
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenplay: Len Blum, Dan Goldberg, Janis Allen, Harold Ramis

Review published July 20, 2007

Bill Murray's (Caddyshack, Tootsie) first starring role showcases the easygoing smart-alecky character that would take him through nearly a career of suitably memorable roles.  It's the first of four films he would make with director Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II are the others), who also shows he has a deftness of character-driven comedy, letting his actors come to the forefront of the story to create some memorable highlights. 

Murray stars as camp counselor Tripper Harrison, head of the lowest-cost camp in the area, Camp North Star.  His uncouth antics seem infectious to those around him, especially the CITs (counselors in training) who are all somewhat odd in their own right.  Their rivals are the upscale denizens of Camp Mohawk, who have bested North Star 12 years in a row at their annual Olympiad competition.  Tripper and his cohorts know the odds are stacked against them, but this time, they mean to turn a few things around in their favor.

It's easy to explain why Meatballs succeeds as a comedy: Bill Murray.  Murray's performance seems so effortless, and yet, he does so much with what could have been a bland role in a throwaway film.  Although previously known mostly as a wacky comic actor on "Saturday Night Live", Murray delivers here in several different departments.  We all know that Murray plays a great smart-ass, but he shows early skill at light romantic comedy (which most of Murray's best roles dabble in), and he seems naturally confident with the kids.  His relationship with the odd boy out, Gerner (Makepeace, My Bodyguard), might be one of the more touching mentor performances I've seen in such a fluff film. 

Although not as significant, if there is one more compliment I could pay to someone involved in the making of Meatballs, it's Reitman himself.  Over the years, Reitman has been known as an actor's director, and when you have a star appearing for the first time in a film surrounded by a no-name supporting cast in a film that lacks a substantial plot, the chance of success would appear bleak.  Though there are many weaknesses in the gags (the slapstick gets to be too difficult to believe at times, such as Morty being carried sideways in his sleep) and the characterizations are painted rather shallow (an uber-geek, a fat kid who loves food, etc.), there is an underlying sweetness to the delivery and kindness in its approach to the loner kids that is commendable.  While others usually paint the kids as bratty and unlikable, Reitman sees them as basically good kids with a great deal of inner talent that doesn't get a chance to come out until the end.

Though the songs are cheesy and comedy sometimes broad, Murray's at the top of his game, so if you're a fan, it's a must see.  Meatballs is much like the experience of summer camp itself -- a place to escape the doldrums of your natural life for a while to spend some quality time with a bunch of kooks and dweebs that eventually grow on you.  Not exactly substantial, but you'll likely carry away some fond memories.

-- Followed by three in-name-only sequels: Meatballs Part II (1984), Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986), and Meatballs 4 (1992).

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo