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Meatballs (1979): The Greatest Summer Camp Movie

At a camp for misfits made well before camps for misfits became the only kind of camp any camp movie could be about, a young awkward boy makes a friend and a mentor in this genre-defining camping comedy. It’s Meatballs.

For some reason, camp movies are one of two things: A) a sex-romp comedy or B) a slasher horror film. Sometimes both. We can at least trace the comedy aspect of this genre to one movie – Meatballs, a film that created nearly all the tropes that would become part of practically every movie of its kind afterward. From the colorful counselors to the inept camp director, to the campers themselves, and of course the evil uppity no-good campers across the lake, it all starts here.

Meatballs
Meatballs, 1979

The story centers on Rudy Gerner (Chris Makepeace), who arrives reluctantly at Camp North Star, a shy and insecure boy with little confidence and plans to runaway at the first chance he gets. He finds it impossible to fit it with the others and keeps to himself. That includes head counselor Tripper Harrison (Bill Murray), a rakish sort of deadpan fellow with a love of sex, practical jokes and generally not giving two ducks (I swapped a foul word with a fowl word) about anything. But he sees something special in Rudy and befriends him while jogging every day in the woods. It’s the start of a friendship that becomes the heart of the film, the other side of the seesaw in this often very funny comedy.

Meatballs
Bill Murray, Chris Makepeace (Meatballs, 1979)

Some say Murray phoned this is in but if he did then I’ll take his call anytime, anywhere. Devoid of the raunchy humor and bevy of female nudity (and an alien and a dead porn star . . . what?) that it inspired in its sequels and in other misfit camp movie rip-offs, Meatballs remains a gleefully silly and often touching story of friendship, innocence, memories, and having a good time above all else. Murray’s delivery is actually kinda genius, and hints at characters that would soon make him a household name. We can easily see Ghostbuster’s Dr. Venkman and even shades of Rob Harris in Lost in Translation in the corners of his performance, admittedly less restrained, but very compelling.

Meatballs
Meatballs, 1979

What really makes the film work though, despite some goofy antics, is how authentic it feels. There is a warmth to the experience that is unlike every other film in the genre, a home-movies-like composition that wraps you into its little story like a blanket on a cool summer evening. Often in films of this nature, characters are cookie-cutter shells, dressed up like a stereotype and given lines that support the trope. And while this movie is full of assorted eccentric characters, the difference is the tone and the love the story has for its cast. This is not a mean movie. It’s not interested in allowing its core character be victimized for spite. When Tripper opens a bottle of champagne with his C.I.T.’s (counselors in training) at the end of the summer celebration campfire and says to Morty (Harvey Atkin), the often pranked camp director, “No hard feelings,” it feels genuine, and in fact, Morty seems honored by the playful high jinks. They are a tradition. It’s a touching moment.

Not that there isn’t plenty of good laughs. Murray leads the cast in creating some fun. When they play a game of basketball against Camp Mohawk’s far superior team, Tripper decided there’s no way to win, but they can at least lose with some self-respect. His solution: at the next jump ball, pull down the shorts of every member of the opposing team and then hi-tail it onto the bus and get out of Dodge. Its simplicity and realism seems tame now as most camp movies go to extremes to out do previous film’s pranks, but it’s that spontaneity and charm about it that make it and so many others in the movie so cherished. That’s really the key here.

Meatballs
Meatballs, 1979

Director Ivan Reitman, who would work with Murray again, including Stripes and Ghostbusters, keeps things low-tempo and grounded, never getting so over-the-top that the film loses its identity. We feel like a part of the experience and as if out by the campfire with them. The lack of high production values and improv feel adds to the charm. Absolutely made what it is by Murray, the young cast is still a fun group, not populated by dolled up supermodels and ab-chiseled coverboys, they are a collection of real teenagers who look like they are on summer vacation. We want to join them.

Meatballs (1979): The Greatest Summer Camp Movie

Credits

Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg
Stars: Bill Murray, Harvey Atkin, Kate Lynch, Russ Banham, Matt Craven, Chris Makepeace

3.5
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