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Meatballs (1979)

by on 2010/07/05

Meatballs is a coming-of-age comedy best known as the starring debut of Bill Murray.  It also features early direction by Ivan Reitman, written contribution by Harold Ramis, and a score by noted composer Elmer Bernstein.  Without the participation of these cinematic heavyweights it’s hard to imagine anyone taking this quaint offering very seriously, though it’s not without its charms.

My initial reaction to the movie was to wonder which came first:  Meatballs or Gordon Korman’s similar coming-of-age comedy novel, I Want to Go Home!

(Further investigation puts the book at 1981, two years after this movie.)

As the movie ran its course, I continued to find similarities, but also significant differences.  For one thing, Korman’s book has a plot.  In comparison, Meatballs feels more like a tone poem, capturing the spirit of camp, rather than the experience of it.

Not that Meatballs didn’t have a tale to tell.  It did.  Many stories, in fact, but its fragmentary scattershot approach, while covering a wide area, failed to penetrate much.  The movie’s value can be judged better by the sum total of goodwill it engenders than by any other accomplishment.

What might have been a story about campers is more often focused on the Wacky Shenanigans of the only-chronologically-more-mature staff members of Camp North Star.  These counselors are largely unconcerned by their charges, and the difficulty in differentiating between them all is probably intentional.

Bill Murray plays Tripper, a senior counselor responsible for helping with much of the day-to-day care of the camp and its staff, a role he shares with the object of his unrequited lust, Roxanne (Kate Lynch).  On the road to their realizing a mutual affection, Tripper also finds the time to reintegrate a socially outcast camper Rudy (an astonishingly young Chris Makepeace).   A tacked-on subplot involves North Star’s rivalry with the poorly-characterized Camp Mohawkers.

The filming of the movie in the midst of an actual functioning camp lends it a refreshingly down-to-earth and realistic tone, but that approach may also account for its scarcity of plot.  Meatballs feels like a poor reality show where the editors tried in vain to stitch together the least evil result possible given the available footage.  Some ideas are interesting, though frustratingly unexplored, like the public address announcements, the parent day activities, and the dynamics between other more typical young campers and their guides.

And while I can justify the majority of characters’ overt sexual posturing as a byproduct of adolescent development, new freedoms, and social rivalry, it’s difficult to excuse Tripper’s “overtures” with Roxanne as anything but harassment.  The producers may try to justify its presence but if assault was ever considered acceptable entertainment it certainly isn’t now.  The movie suffers for its inclusion, especially as a comic aspect of a major protagonist.  It’s an unfortunate element common to many of the era’s comedies.

Otherwise Meatballs is a reasonably amusing, if slight, look at summer camp life.  It’s both more and less than the sum of its parts, with enough authenticity to evoke a vague nostalgia.  It’s good clean fun.  Well . . . maybe not entirely clean but perhaps “naively naughty” will suffice.

* * *

Rated PG for adult language, situations, and subject matter

93 minutes

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