There was a time during the late 1970s and the early 80s where summer camp movies of all shapes and sizes were being thrown at the big screen. The reason? "Meatballs;" the little Canadian comedy about summertime smiles that made more money than anyone ever thought possible and introduced Bill Murray to a future of big screen comedy domination.
Rudy (Chris Makepeace, at his most feral) is a shy, unpopular kid sent away for the summer to Camp North Star. There he meets counselor Tripper Harrison (Bill Murray), an unorthodox leader who inspires Rudy to overcome his social limitations, while also goading the rest of the camp into an endless series of pranks and assorted mischief that sets the tone for the summer.
"Meatballs" is a simplistic comedy that desires nothing more than to entertain kids with its pastiche of rude behavior, teenage bonding, and authority figure hipness. Under the guidance of director Ivan Reitman, "Meatballs" is the sort of easygoing diversion that makes going to the movies so much fun at times. It wasn't lazy, just relaxed; an assured lemon wedge of jokester friendliness that defined the early work of both Reitman and Murray and allowed them to follow the film up with the one-two punch of "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters." What an amazing collaborative track record.
Working with an embarrassingly low budget (seen in the occasional Watersesque camera move), "Meatballs" manages to capture the camp climate extraordinarily. Reitman's endless summer canoe-ride directorial job encapsulates the humidity, sexual energy, and tomfoolery of being away from your parents and shoved into a forest setting with strangers who hang their all-important acceptance out of reach like a piñata. I'm positive Reitman wasn't even paying attention to the finer details of stomped greenery and adolescent vigor, but the lack of money helps the picture find a faded sense of reality amidst all the pronounced jokes.
At this point in his career, Bill Murray was this wild, unshaped thing. Not used to the weight of starring roles, the comedian was instructed to simply go for broke, and that's exactly the Murray we get in the picture. Yes, he's hammy, and the velocity of that comedy is overwhelming at times. It almost feels like a different movie when Murray and Makepeace share their intimate moments of bonding and confession (turns out, it was a different movie, but we'll get to that in a moment). However, he remains the classic irreverent vulgarian; an idyllic slapfight counselor who's at best when it comes time to take control of a situation and even better when the moment commands him to lose it. Murray has been funnier and far more authoritative during his career, but he was never this joyfully floppy again. "Meatballs" is the crowning of his doofus glory and a great testament to his once improvisational appeal.
Once "Meatballs" leaps up and becomes a camp vs. camp competition movie, the picture settles down for a more formulaic tone, but it's hard to complain. With the characters so broadly drawn and the locations lush and lived in, the film has a free pass to go wherever it wants to go at this point. Thankfully, Reitman's intentions are to entertain on a modest, but highly effective scale. He accomplishes his goal in marvelous fashion.
The 1999 DVD release of "Meatballs" showed the painful kind of care 1999 gave to titles of lesser studio value. In a reversal of fortune, Sony has remastered the film, presenting it here in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio). Compared to what was offered before, the new image looks remarkable, with blissful colors and stable fleshtones. The film was shot very softly, which the DVD handles well, but the image lacks a pinpoint sharpness that might throw off some viewers.
Upgraded to a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix, the muddy dialogue of the film is given a new life. The track is strong, using surrounds well for the soundtrack cuts (Rick Dees never had it so good) and Elmer Bernstein's extravagant score, but preserving the modest efforts of the original sound design.
Building on the bare-bones 1999 disc, the new special edition of "Meatballs" has a nice selection of extras fans will definitely want to spend time with. Frankly, this film, which surfaced stealthily back in 1979, demands some explanation. Luckily, Sony agreed.
A feature-length audio commentary with Ivan Reitman and writer/producer Daniel Goldberg starts the fun. These two share an extensive history and the track reflects a comfort between the men that makes for an interesting and, thankfully, lively track. While Goldberg plays the role of the "I misremember everything" guy, Reitman is better prepared, delving into the film's blinding production schedule and his general pleasure with the final product. Some highlights:
- Proving that his current fearful-of-film-commitment behavior is nothing new, Bill Murray never actually agreed to make "Meatballs." The only way Reitman knew he had Murray in his film was when the actor showed up on the third day of shooting ready for work.
- As odd as this might be to read, the Tripper character was only a small part of the CIT ("counselors in training") menagerie. The initial concept of the film was to follow all the CITs, tracing their love and laughs throughout the summer. Only after filming did Reitman realize the picture needed more Murray and Makepeace, bringing them back months later to shoot additional scenes. If you've ever wanted to know why Murray looks different from scene to scene, here's your answer.
- To better fit this newly polished subplot, nearly one hour of CIT subplots was cut from the film. No deleted footage is included on the DVD.
- Once retooled, the film started a bidding war for releasing rights. Paramount won, leading to a slight befuddlement watching a Sony DVD open with the Paramount logo. Ahh, the magic of painstaking and numbing film rights issues.
"Summer Camp: The Making of 'Meatballs'" is a 47-minute documentary (divided into three featurettes) exploring the creation of the classic comedy. This is an arid informational piece, failing to match the energy of the subject matter. Its length allows a rounded discussion of the film's genesis and casting, yet odd interview camera placement and an overall somber tone tend to make the doc feel like homework. Reitman, Goldberg, Harvey Atkin (who played Morty), Kate Lynch (Roxanne), Jack Blum (Spaz), Keith Knight (Fink), Hadley Kay (Bradley), and Chris Makepeace are some of the interviewees.
For die-hard fans, it's worth a sit alone to see some of the cast in their middle-age, especially Makepeace, who still sports hair thickness of the gods. Expectedly and unfortunately, Murray is not interviewed.
There is no trailer for "Meatballs" included on the disc, but peeks at "Seinfeld: Season 8," "Stranger Than Fiction," and "Ghost Rider" are included.
Summer camp as a movie setting isn't used much anymore. Kids today have so much more on their minds than interacting with peers in cabins and around a fire, and I miss that feeling of community; the purity of a poison ivy generation, even with their mischievous habits. "Meatballs" is broad and childish, but it's just so good. The kind of film you want to live in for 90 minutes while the world slowly melts away around you.
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