Not having gone to summer camp, the experience of watching Meatballs on Blu-Ray holds an extra dimension of fascination for me: everyone there is so young. There’s Morty the camp director (Harvey Atkin), of course, an actual adult, but everyone else feels like some degree of kid: the campers, pre-teen and up; the counselors-in-training, scarcely much older; and the actual counselors, led by Tripper, played by Bill Murray at the ripe old age of 28 or so, in his first major role. With all of the youthful faces and the movie’s rambling narrative, summer camp is portrayed as a kind of youthful commune, shut off from normal society.
I have no idea if this is accurate, though director Ivan Reitman mentions on his commentary track (imported from a DVD release circa 2007 or so) that they shot the film at an actual summer camp, using actual camp kids as extras and in bit parts. Even without summer camp background, though, the movie feels culturally familiar. It’s entirely possible, for example, that fans of Wet Hot American Summer will never have seen Meatballs or other films in the summer-camp micro-genre that inspired Wet Hot‘s spoofery, but will recognize its conventions nonetheless: the campfire hook-ups, the PA announcements, the kids who don’t quite fit in, and the rival camp conveniently attended only by rich jerks.
More broadly, Meatballs feels oddly prescient in its comedy stylings, even without being especially hilarious. Murray made this movie when he was still on Saturday Night Live, and the formula of Murray plus Reitman (who directed) and Harold Ramis (who co-wrote) makes it feel like a junior companion to Animal House, which came out the previous year. But while Animal House has its share of descendants, the less accomplished Meatballs establishes a formula that feels, if anything, more relevant to future SNL stars, for better or worse: take popular sketch comedian, add kids, let him riff, not too much plot. The results rarely if ever show much distinction (Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming; Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care; Adam Sandler in a lot of things, but especially Big Daddy—and Grown Ups which is basically Meatballs with adults playing the children), but their existence makes Meatballs feel like something of a minor revelation in retrospect.
At the time, it was Murray himself who was the revelation; now his loose and funny work in here seems par for the course. He more or less improvises most of the movie’s big laughs, whether courting a fellow counselor, organizing pranks, or riffing nonchalantly in front of anyone who will listen—most famously in a big, climactic speech to the campers predicated on the notion that actually, summer camp competitions aren’t important at all. Even with a large and likable ensemble at the movie’s disposal, Murray handles its emotional component, too. Tripper bonds with Rudy (Chris Makepeace), a friendless outcast and encourages him to come out of his shell, showing subtle heart as he encourages the kid without ever really giving him sincere advice or platitudes.
On the commentary track, Reitman and co-writer/producer Daniel Goldberg note that this relationship between Tripper and Rudy was enhanced late in the process. They produced a two-hour cut of the movie, originally more about the teenage counselors-in-training; cut it way down to seventy minutes; then filmed additional scenes with Murray and Makepeace to work the movie back up to its final ninety minutes. They say that this process “really focused the movie,” but the final cut of Meatballs still isn’t exactly a model of laser focus.
Even shifting to accommodate Murray’s comic star power, Meatballs maintains an ambling, low-stakes gait, driven by a diverse mixture of antics, hijinks, and shenanigans. Summer camp movies have a reputation as breeding grounds for raunch (and Reitman himself notes that the project “started out a very sweet movie,” implying the result is coarser than intended), but apart from a few gags about adolescent horniness, almost everything about the movie feels mild, from its sight gags to its reaction shots. When the kids play a series of pranks on Morty, he seems, at worst, mildly and momentarily confused.
This does lend the movie a certain easygoing warmth, compensating somewhat for its sporadic laughs (ironically, when then-TV star Murray isn’t onscreen, the movie plays like a lost seventies sitcom with swears). The smarter-than-this sloppiness has yet to atrophy into all-out laziness—and unlike comedians who turn to the riff-with-kids formula later in their careers, Murray and Reitman used Meatballs as the warm-up to greater successes, by which I mostly mean Ghostbusters.
This leaves Meatballs more a fan curio than an actual classic—albeit a curio that looks surprisingly nice in high-definition and features snappy behind-the-scenes anecdotes from Reitman and Goldberg on the commentary. Even the movie’s signature moment, Murray’s big “it just doesn’t matter” speech, feels tossed off in context. It contains what Reitman refers to as the “metaphorical philosophy of the movie” (show up, have fun), yet it came entirely out of improv—and the movie doesn’t do a particularly great job disguising this. The scene itself is prime Murray, but it comes after almost no build-up (not even the token demonstration of hopelessness), and its connection to the campers’ eventual triumph feels more coincidental than motivational.
Three decades on, the whole movie, including its broader success, feels a bit like that: a lucky accident that happened to some smart filmmakers.