Meatballs is one of those films that I’ve seen on video store shelves for my entire life, so I thought I had a pretty good handle on what it was. You know, one of those R-rated 1980s college sex comedies. Right? Turns out my video store shelf memory isn’t as stellar as I sometimes like to think. Meatballs is actually a fairly tame, PG-rated, summer camp movie that my brain pretty much freely interchanged with the Porky’s franchise.
Billed and sold as Bill Murray’s first starring role, Meatballs knows what it has going for it. While it was directed by Ivan Reitman and (at least partly) written by Harold Ramis, among others, I think their biggest contribution to the film was talking Murray into starring, and then letting him do whatever he wanted once he got in front of the camera. This sounds like exactly what happened from the early parts of the commentary on this disc.
Murray plays Tripper, the greatest summer camp counselor ever. He pretty much roams freely around the camp (not to mention around the screenplay), pulling pranks on his boss, wreaking mild havoc, and also being genuinely nice and loving to some of the uncool campers.
Meatballs is too mild and mostly unfunny to be considered the comedy classic that the cover of this Blu-ray release proclaims. What it offers to the world of comedy is simply three of the biggest names of the 1980s (Murray, Reitman, and Ramis.) Within the confines of this early collaboration, however, there aren’t a lot of laughs. I hate to suggest that comedies like this need to be rated R to get the laughs, and I don’t think that is actually true. But this film just meanders and plods a little too much to garner the laughs it needs.
The film does succeed at being a kind-hearted and snark-free plunge into one summer in 1979. Especially touching is the relationship between Murray’s Tripper and a sad little camper named Rudy (Chris Makepeace.) Tripper takes this little guy under his wing, offers him advice, jokes around with him, and takes him on early morning jogs. As a former youth pastor myself, I was surprised at how genuine and loving this relationship felt. It seems like Murray infused so much of his awesome self into this character that while Meatballs is not a very good movie, you still kind of wish you could have gone to Camp North Star as a camper.
I didn’t really notice the image quality of Meatballs being all that stunning, myself. But this release does offer a commentary track with Director Ivan Reitman and Co-Writer/Producer Dan Goldberg. I only listened to about a half an hour of the track, but it was filled with interesting anecdotes. Apparently the shoot began without Murray, because he hadn’t yet committed to the film. If he had declined, the film would likely have fallen apart. I would add to that anecdote that A) Bill Murray was apparently too cool for school even before he was on Saturday Night Live. And B) if Murray had declined Meatballs, there would have been literally nothing that the film had to offer. Murray totally makes Meatballs, and even then he only elevates it to watchable.