"I'll probably just use her for the rest of the summer and then throw her on the scrap heap with all the rest of the women that I've destroyed!"
School’s out for summer, which means it’s time for Camp North Star to open for business again. Awaiting this year’s newest crop of campers is head counselor Tripper (Bill Murray) and crew, who will introduce them to the wonders of shenanigans and pranks. They’ll also teach them some important lessons in self-respect and friendship, too, particularly Rudy (Chris Makepeace), an introvert who Tripper attempts to coax out of his shell as the summer wears on.
I never went to camp as a kid, and that’s probably for the best because no experience could have lived up to what Meatballs has to offer. It’s sort of an idyllic portrait of youth, set during the most carefree time on the kid calendar, those long summer days that you never want to end. As such, much of the film is focused on goofball antics and pranks. My particular favorite is a running gag that involves camp director Morty (Harvey Atkin), a heavy sleeper who finds himself waking up in some strange places every morning. There’s plenty silliness of this type, as Camp North Star exhibits the kind of rowdiness, vulgarity, and general anarchy you’d expect if Bill Murray were left in charge of a bunch of kids.
I’m pretty sure no real camp counselor would have been as awesome as Tripper either. Murray’s first lead character exhibits the droll, deadpan persona that he would become famous for; that’s sort of the perfect personality for a slackery camp counselor like Tripper. He’s just a big, loveable goof who is mostly just as immature as the kids he’s supposed to be nurturing. When he’s not dishing out sagely wisdom, he’s hitting on another counselor, Roxanne (Kate Lynch); some might call his advances sexual harassment these days, but we call it classy. Tripper’s not the only one in search of love; in fact, all of the counselors seem to be mixed up with each other in some way or another, and the combination of their pursuits and the younger kids’ exploits cuts a wide swath and rounds out the entire camp experience. You get a little bit of everything: budding romances, panty raids, hot dog eating contests, etc.
Tripper is most important because he is the film’s heart and soul; he’s both the last and first guy you want looking out for your kid. While he teaches them the finer points of pantsing and gambling with peanuts, he also inspires them to find and accept themselves. This is best seen in his friendship with Rudy, the shy kid who wants no part of camp and even tries to leave; Tripper, of course, understands and takes him under his wing. Instead of taking on a position of authority, he acts more like an older brother to Rudy, who eventually will play a pivotal role in Camp North’s Star rival, Camp Mohawk, the swanky uptown gang that’s dominated the annual athletic competition. One of Murray’s finest moments comes in his pre-games speech to his troops, which both tries to rally them and sarcastically relay one harsh truth: “it just doesn’t matter” because they’re just a ragtag group that won’t ever be expected to do much in life.
Meatballs was also Ivan Reitman’s directorial debut; the Canadian film-maker would go on to re-team with Murray with Stripes and Ghostbusters. His first feature shows his penchant for raunch and silliness that he’d continue to refine, but it also displays a gentle warmth. At the end of the day, it’s a film that succeeds because it’s about a good bunch of people having a good time; the camaraderie feels very real throughout the camp, and it’s a place you’d never want to leave. But of course, all good things must come to an end, and the movie shows this too--it gets pretty wistful and bittersweet at the end, as the transient nature of camp relationships comes to the forefront. As exuberant as the opening theme song is, the final scenes are appropriately subdued and capture the end of summer blues perfectly. That time of the year had to be especially tough for the campers at North Star because theirs is probably the best camp ever committed to film. (Brett G.)
Tale of the Tape: