Movie review: ‘Meatballs’

Meatballs” is one of those fondly remembered films from a person’s younger days that was tremendously funny when you didn’t care if it has a potential Oscar nominee or really told much of any story. Those films were just fun and about young people having fun. “Meatballs” is the kind of film that was cashing in on the popularity with the “youth market” of the day and Bill Murray was just about as hot as you could get. “Meatballs” is a quintessential summer film – released in June and its plot revolving around a summer camp. It has all the stereotypes and actually pulls it off. This one does a good job of standing the test of time because, hey, it has its 35th anniversary on June 29, 2014 (ouch!).

‘Meatballs’
(1979; 194 minutes; rated PG; directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Bill Murray, Harvey Atkin and Kate Lynch)

IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!

(NOTE: I expanded this review with a little more opinion and trivia as well as updating the links on Sept. 27, 2016.)

In the wake of the comedy nuclear blast from 1978 called “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and the ongoing cool of TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” Hollywood was experiencing an ongoing conniption fit in a rush to cash in on the youth market. Young(er) audiences showed they brought financial muscle to the table as they idolized a new wave of comics and actors and spent their dollars in a short-lived insatiable appetite for “Animal House”-like films and the actors from “SNL.”

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A bunch of bad copycats of “Animal House” came out (such as the execrable “Up the Creek” with two of the “Animal House” stars – click here for my review), but the “SNL” gang fared much better with their films. Bill Murray was one and he would headline “Meatballs” in 1979. It was a typically light summer comedy and finished just outside the top 10 films of the year and was a complete success with its target young audience and is just a bundle of fun waiting to be opened.

Meatballs” remains a breath of fresh air all these years later. Murray does a great job and the supporting cast, while not big names, is surprisingly solid and makes sure “Meatballs” doesn’t sink to the level of many of the rushed-to-production efforts that tried to cash in on the comedy craze of the late ‘70s. “Meatballs” is a bit different in that Harold Ramis, who was a co-writer on “Animal House,” had his next writing credit for “Meatballs.” And so with that pedigree of just an actor and a writer – and don’t forget director Ivan Reitman, in his first “big” film and who would go on to direct the original “Ghostbusters” five years later – you had a real hit on your hands.

In “Meatballs,” Murray plays “Tripper Harrison,” who is the lead counselor at a summer camp for kids called “Camp North Star.” He’s offbeat, funny and has that anti-establishment edge that everyone loves. The campers are represented by Chris Makepeace as “Rudy Gerner,” who is a loner and needs a bit of coming-of-age advice and Murray’s there to give it to him.

There’s a bunch of randy counselors-in-training (CITs), but the action never gets to be too adult (hence the PG rating) despite the revealing poster of the film. So, all that’s left is a showdown with the rich kids’ camp nearby after the good guys get beat at basketball. Of course the good guys win, Makepeace comes of age and the camp’s manager is left sleeping in his bunk placed on a float in the lake.

It’s all nonsense on screen and just kids being kids and the semi-adults just goofing around and ignoring any real-world responsibility as twentysomethings are prone to do since it is so much fun and it ticks off so many older adults.

What you’ll find the most of here is that Murray is simply an extension of a mix of his “SNL” persona here and does a beautiful job. He’s fun, happy and infuses everyone with a bit more of a love of life. It’s not easy for an actor to be so affable and likable, but he does a great job here. Murray would go on to the comedy classics “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” and he had the best cameo of the last decade in 2009’s “Zombieland” (click here for my review).

After Murray, there’s no one or two big names. However, the platoon system of a bunch of great utility players works wonders here. Let’s take a look at the highlights of a few of the supporting cast:

  • Kate Lynch plays “Roxanne” and is the love interest and lead counselor for the female CITs. She does a good job as a straight woman as the foil for Murray and easily holds her own and gets in a few jabs herself. Lynch was in here first film role here after three TV spots and was in “Skullduggery” and a string of TV roles and is active in the industry today.
  • I’ve recently reviewed several films with Kristine DeBell and “Meatballs” is the next. The former adult film star crossed over to mainstream Hollywood and is in her fourth film here. She specializes in perky, energetic blondes and is the frisky “A.L.” here. DeBell does a good job, about equal to her work in “TAG: The Assassination Game” (click here for my review) and much better than her work with Jackie Chan in “Battle Creek Brawl” (click here for my review).
  • Makepeace is in his first film here and does an adequate job. He’s the moody, loner of a camper who just wants to fit in. Makepeace is OK, but he doesn’t do anything to elevate the role – and any of the supporting roles could have come screaming to the top if their actors had had the ability. Makepeace was also in “My Bodyguard” and “Vamp” and he’s been out of Hollywood for more than a decade now with his last credit in 2001.

The male CITs are pretty much uniform and stereotyped, with names such as “Hardware,” “Crockett,” “Spaz,” “Fink” and “Wheels.” The female CITs come to the game with more conventional names: “Candace,” “Wendy” and “Jackie.” All these actors do competent work, but I’m not going to highlight their individual efforts. One of the rival camp CITs who is in the food-eating contest has the less-than-inventive name “The Stomach.”

Meatballs” was a hit, but came in just outside the top 10 box office hits in 1979 with $43 million earned on a really frugal $1.6 million budget, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was the tedious and nauseating drams “Kramer vs. Kramer” with $106.2 million and the No. 10 film was “The Muppet Movie” with $65.2 million. Here are the films from 1979 that I have reviewed:

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The Hawaiian shirt and shorts Murray wore in the film were his own clothes.
  • The movie was shot at Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ontario (which is north of Toronto).
  • Harvey Atkin plays camp manager “Morty Melnick” and does a workmanlike job here. He’s a figure to mock for the counselors and CITs and is pretty much oblivious to it. Atkin has been on TV’s “Cagney & Lacey” and other TV slots in a five-decade career with a prolific 164 credits.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Keith Knight and Peter Hume, who respectively played Fink and The Stomach, died exactly two months apart in real life. Knight died August 22, 2007; Hume died October 22, 2007.” Knight succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 51 and Hume died of natural causes at 54.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “According to legend, the running gag of calling Camp Northstar Director Morty, by the name of Mickey instead, is an arcane reference to Mickey Mouse’s original name, Mortimer Mouse.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner
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