Summer camps attract a different kind of individual, both in terms of who attends and works at them. Having been both a Boy Scout who spent several teenage weeks away from home, served as a counselor at a month-long conference for academically gifted teens, and later helped promote these wholesome activities at a Christian retreat center, I have some insight for how some view summer camp as less than a set number of days making arts and crafts and more like a way of life.
I’ve been waiting to write about Meatballs for a while now. This is being published online both during the first week of the Rio Olympics and the early part of August when most summer camps in my area are almost finished for the year, now is the perfect time to take a look at how both of those topics fared 37 summers ago when Bill Murray made his big-screen debut.
Meatballs explores summer fun through Ivan Reitman’s cheeky comedic lens focusing on head counselor Tripper (Murray) as he and his subordinates look after the kids, try to get laid, and have some fun in the process. Murray filmed the movie in Canada after his first year as a breakout star on Saturday Night Live, and it functions well as a star vehicle for his talents but some aspects of the story do not age well.
The plot is pretty standard sitcom fare. The hyper-horny, college-age counselors attend to younger, middle-class kids going to Camp North Star and help them engage in the usual activities as the weeks count down to a series of competitions with the more affluent occupants of Camp Tomahawk.
This includes the usual swimming and potato-sack races but for some weird reason also involves boxing (shades of Teen Wolf, Too?), wrestling, and a gluttonous hot dog eating contest where the rich kids often cheat and their blue-collar counterparts often come up empty-handed.
One camper named Rudy (played with perfect adolescent ennui by Chris Makepeace) feels like an outsider because he doesn’t know how to play soccer and is ostracized after the other kids force him to play and he loses the match for them. That changes, however, when Tripper takes the teen under his wing and teaches him both the ways of sarcasm and long-distance running while urging the boy to come out of his shell.
There are some decent comedic moments here and there, but the relationship between Tripper and Rudy take precedence when one of Northstar’s athletes sustains a leg injury and Tripper volunteers the underdeveloped Rudy step up and be the sole runner for the camp during the 4K cross country race.
The interactions between mentor and child always feel genuine and are downright inspiring at times between the jokes, but what is more than a little disturbing is how sexist and almost harassing the attraction between the gender separated camp counselors is handled. I can attest that the subject of sex is something ever present at summer camp no matter what the age of those involved. Still, take a look at this scene involving Murray’s character horsing around with his summer crush and tell me this is not a misogynist product of a different time:
Sorry, but in this day and age that would be considered assault Billy boy. No means no, even in 1979, and this exchange felt less like comic relief and more some unwanted advance which should not have been included at all in the final product. It makes things even more odd (SPOILER ALERT) when the girl agrees to move in with him at the end of the summer. I guess it is true, some ladies just dig jerks.
Despite that unpleasantness, the one thing which stands out most watching the film almost four decades later is Murray’s impeccable comedic timing and improv skills. When his team of underdogs is trailing the rich kid’s camp in their version of the junior Olympics, he delivers a rousing inspirational speech as only the man who would later star in Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day can:
The music in the movie suffers through some heavy-handed songs often almost drowning out the visuals, but like memories of summer camp it is a special product of its time. Top-40 deejay Rick Dees (who recorded the infamous Disco Duck) contributes title track, and Terry Black’s rendition of Moondust captures the spirit of young summer love much more tenderly than the musical Grease (still topping the Billboard album charts at the time, although it was released the previous summer) ever could.
The real standouts, though, are the instrumentals offered by Elmer Bernstein. His music more than captures the turbulent time Rudy endures during a tough summer where he struggles both with growing up and pressure to impress the kids who want nothing to do with him in the big race.
Meatballs may not be a life-changing movie, but it certainly will make you smile at least once during the 90 minutes it takes to work its light-hearted magic. Like the memories of summer camp, once you have safely returned home it still serves as a comforting vacation postcard reminding you of the hot fun of summer days now starting to fade into fall.
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Running time: 94 minutes
MPAA rating: PG for mild cursing and sexual situations
Celluloid Scoreboard: B; It’s a raucous vintage Bill Murray late ’70s time capsule subtly filled with heart, but that pseudo sexual-assault scene does not age well