Lighthearted Humor at Fat Camp: ‘Heavyweights’

Nobody wants to go to fat camp. Grown-ups don’t want to go; kids don’t want to go. But in 1995, Disney hoped audiences would delight in a comedy about kids at fat camp.

It seems like a strange premise, but up until that point the company was practically on a roll. In the early to mid-’90s, Disney had success with enjoyable, child-friendly live action films like The Rocketeer, Newsies, Cool Runnings, and Angels in the Outfield. Perhaps the clearest indicator of the company’s success in live action during that era is that 1992’s wildly popular The Mighty Ducks inspired two successful sequels, an animated series, and, believe it or not, an actual NHL team. In 1995, a then-unknown screenwriter/producer named Judd Apatow and a struggling actor named Ben Stiller collaborated on Disney’s Heavyweights, a film that was, for better or for worse, marketed as being Mighty Ducks-esque.

However, Heavyweights certainly didn’t spawn an NHL team; it even didn’t take off at the box office. Almost 20 years have passed since the film’s theatrical release and Heavyweights has developed a small, devoted following, which is probably why the cult classic has been released on Blu-ray.

Today, a comedy featuring the combined prosperous forces of Apatow and Stiller would be a surefire draw at the box office. It’s probably not too hard to imagine the alluring merits of a quirky trailer that peddles Ben Stiller as a rampant villain in a Judd Apatow-penned comedy about summer camp, infomercials, and child obesity. In those days, those names were almost entirely meaningless. However, despite its flaws, the comicality in Heavyweights does hold up quite well. Part of that, no doubt, is because Apatow’s sense of humor and the antics of Stiller are much more commonplace.

The film, directed by Steven Brill, follows the unfortunate summer of a young teen named Gerry (Aaron Schwartz) who is sent to Camp Hope, a weight loss camp. Gerry arrives at Camp Home only to find that the camp’s beloved bankrupt owners Harvey and Alice Bushkin (Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara), have sold the camp to a sadistic fitness guru named Tony Perkis. Perkis, played by an especially intense Ben Stiller, immediately turns the cheerful fat camp into a painful, insufferable weight loss boot camp. His grand scheme is to make a high-powered infomercial that features before-and-after shots of the young campers.

He brings alongside a film crew in hopes of documenting impressive results. All the cheerful pleasures of the camp are destroyed and Gerry and his friends must, in essence, partake in an absurdly cruel, involuntary Biggest Loser type of program. Early on, Perkis forcefully announces, “Attention campers, lunch has been canceled due to lack of hustle. Deal with it.”

Luckily, Gerry is joined by an entire group of young, portly, wisecracking campers who must figure out how to survive and overcome such a difficult situation. The teen/pre-teen ensemble includes Shaun Weiss and Kenan Thompson both fresh from their roles in 1994’s D2: The Mighty Ducks.

Gerry is also encouraged by his kindhearted mentor, Pat (Tom McGowan), a chronically overweight counselor who has attended Camp Hope for 18 years. The underrated McGowan provides the emotional glue that holds the offbeat tale together. Plus, his character is the only one to draw any meaningful dialogue out of the other characters. It’s also worth noting that this Disney film also features Paul Feig, the director of 2011’s raunchy hitBridesmaids, in a small role as a camp counselor.

The movie’s “fat camp” premise alone is enough to let you know it’s not exactly the standard heartwarming Disney flick. To its credit, the film is a bit darker in tone than most of the typical ‘90s-era Disney fare, so much so that it’s doubtful the film would be made today.

All in all, blueprints of future Apatow and Ben Stiller characters do exist in Heavyweights. Stiller, for example, essentially plays the same character in 2004’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Apatow’s fans will notice it is, understandably, far away from the vulgarity of Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and closer to his work with Freaks and Geeks. Yet, somehow, the phrase “skinny wieners” does manage to become a running gag in the Disney film.

At times the movie’s not unlike Meatballs, Stripes, or Ernest Goes To Camp. The real problem with the film isn’t the overabundance of flatulence gags, the “Seymour Butts” jokes, or even the self-deprecating tone. It’s that Heavyweights plays like two movies in one and they don’t interlock perfectly. The first half is devoted to the campers surviving the actions of Stiller’s heavy-duty Tony Little spoof. The second weaker half focuses on how the boys and their sympathetic counselors rebel. Their revenge, it seems, is far from clever or remarkably entertaining.

Instead of raising any meaningful stakes for the likeable characters, the film builds to a conclusion that’s happy but close to pointless. In the final scenes, Camp Hope participates in an annual contest against the dreadful, fit overachievers at nearby Camp MVP, though the competition arrives entirely after the resolution of the group’s significant conflict with Perkis. This leaves the tale going out on a peculiar go-kart-filled, albeit cheery, whimper.

Also, in hindsight, it’s admittedly difficult to watch this film unashamedly glorify obesity. In the midst of the child obesity epidemic in America, it’s a bit hard to watch the overweight campers partake, for example, in an extended slow-motion scene where the youth passionately pig-out on junk food. (The scene is so big and lively that it’s called a “food orgy” in the disc’s extras.) The film’s comedy perpetuates overweight stereotypes by having the unathletic boys pelted by incoming baseballs when they’re not busy smuggling in cheeseburgers or gorging on candy.

Sure, it’s hard to see Perkis try to humiliate the teens into losing weight but it’s also tough when you realize the film presents fairly direct a message to young viewers that you can either be physically fit and a jerk like the heinous kids at Camp MVP or you can be fat and have fun like the chunky, friendly kids at Camp Hope. After a heart to heart with Pat about being overweight, Gerry points to the nearby camp full of healthy people and says, “You don’t wanna be one of those guys. They’re jerks.” Pat even spends time yelling, “You can keep your washboard abs and oily muscles, I don’t want ‘em.”

Indeed, after an intense night of communal binging on treats like s’mores, Pat does tell his campers, “We have to start getting healthy for ourselves,” but it’s a fleeting afterthought to the film’s contrasting themes and dialogue. If you can get past this sort of thing though, the comedy’s quite entertaining.

Though he’s over-the-top, Stiller shines in the delightfully zany role, perhaps shining too brightly for the surrounding actors. Combined with the script’s punchiness, Stiller’s hyperkinetic portrayal results in a demented but amusing villain. Hardly anyone else could deliver a line like, ”I eat success for breakfast… with skim milk!” with such conviction and masterful comic timing. Plus, given his role, it certainly helps that he’s in incredible shape. Even so, with the exception of the more experienced Weiss and Thompson, the film’s young actors appear to have been chosen more for their mass than for distinct personalities or endearing performances. Yet, the confident, talented Weiss and Thompson steal every scene they make wisecracks in, which is most of them.

As you’d expect, if nothing else, Heavyweights is big on laughs. When compared to the Disney live action offerings of the era, it’s is probably more amusing than films like Angels in the Outfield or even The Mighty Ducks but it also lacks their heart, dramatic conflicts, and momentous resolutions.

For major fans of Heavyweights, the Blu-ray edition is heavy on the special features. The audio commentary with Judd Apatow, co-writer/director Steven Brill, and actors Allen Covert, Aaron Schwartz, Shaun Weiss, and Tom Hodges is the rare Blu-ray commentary track that’s worth listening to more than once. It’s surprisingly insightful while being as comical as you’d hope for it to be.

In the extras, there’s also a 25-minute making of featurette from 1995 that, for example, shows Stiller as a committed method actor. Viewers also can enjoy “Video Chat: Judd & Kenan,” a madly entertaining eight-minute chat between the Apatow and Thompson about their memories of the film, and a “Where Are They Now” featurette that somehow excludes current Saturday Night Livestar Thompson.

Most noteworthy, the special features include a hefty collection of 35 deleted scenes that run 94 minutes—almost the length of the film itself. The motion picture seems to have been significantly slimmed down and it’s nice to see the throwaway gags that didn’t make the final cut. Overall, fans, young and old, of the cult classic should be thrilled that Heavyweights has received this kind of substantial treatment.

RATING 6 / 10