How It Stands Up

'Meatballs' Matters

Thirty-seven years after its release, the classic film about summer camp still makes you feel good

The mystery behind "Meatballs," the iconic film about summer camp directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Bill Murray, is that there's so much working against this movie.

It's silly. It's juvenile. In some cases, it's regressive and unreconstructed—with lines like, "Are you a homo or what?" and scenes centered around pants getting pulled down to expose underwear. And yet with all its shortcomings, the film works. It worked in 1979 when it earned $43 million at the box office, and it still works in this jaded uber-PC millennial era.

So how does "Meatballs" avoid looking like an antiquated romp, like its Canadian cohort "Porky's"?

At the heart of "Meatballs" is the relationship between Tripper—the madcap head counselor played by Murray—and Rudy, the outcast preteen played by Chris Makepeace. Their scenes are sweet and nuanced. Tripper helps Rudy by being his friend and mentor, while Rudy draws out some true emotion behind Tripper's prankster façade.

The underdog theme is timeless. The "Meatball" kids attend the budget, ramshackle Camp Northstar. Their rivals at Camp Mohawk are rich-kid assholes who behave cruelly and cheat to win. Who wouldn't root for the misfits against these obnoxious one percenters? In an opening scene, Murray—as Tripper—skewers the privileged in a way that resonates in 2015 as if he'd time-traveled to research Wall Street excess.

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Tripper pretends to work for Camp Mohawk and answers a TV reporter's questions about the place. "We have some special programs," he says. "Yasser Arafat is gonna come out, spend a weekend with the kids, rap with them. … Each camper will stalk and kill his own bear." He goes on to mention the hookers the camp will be importing from around the world for "Sexual Awareness" week.

And though jiggling boobs abound in many of the slapstick scenes, Tripper's love interest is played by a very real-looking actress. Kate Lynch is neither blond nor stacked. It's hard to imagine someone with her un-Hollywood look ever getting cast today in a leading role unless it was an indie alternative film purposely shunning the female beauty standard. Later in his career, the women playing opposite Murray would be Andie McDowell, Scarlett Johansson and Sharon Stone. But in 1979 with Ivan Reitman directing, there was a touch of veritas that renders "Meatballs" all the more endearing.

So too the lush scenery, and graffitied bunks are wonderfully evocative of camp for anyone who's spent a summer at one. That's because Reitman filmed it at an actual camp in Central Ontario. The real camp was operating during shooting, and campers were used as extras.

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But the two elements that make this film a classic are Reitman and Murray.

"Meatballs" was Reitman's directorial debut (aside from an $11,000 horror-comedy film). He'd helped make "Animal House" after working as a producer at the "National Lampoon Show" with soon-to-be legends like Murray, Gilda Radner and John Belushi.

"Meatballs" was his first project after "Animal House" and he had to coax Murray—who was slated to join "Saturday Night Live" as a permanent cast member after the summer and was still unknown—to join the cast. According to Reitman, Murray only agreed to do it after shooting had begun. Since he'd developed the script with Murray in mind, Reitman has said that without Murray, it would have been a "pretty mediocre movie."

One of Reitman's trademark touches—aside from the sentimental story at the heart of the film—is that he gave writers and actors space to improvise. With Murray this proved to be a stroke of brilliance. The best scene was never in the script. If you've seen the movie, you'll remember it:

Camp Northstar is losing to Camp Mohawk during the annual two-day Olympiad. Tripper gives a rollicking and subversive pep talk worthy of Hunter Thompson (a role Murray would take on a year later and nail). He doesn't tell the kids that they'll win the next day or even that they're better human beings than the wealthy and more athletic Mohawkers. Instead, Tripper tells them the naked truth: "It just doesn't matter." The sentence becomes a chant, lifting everyone's spirits and bringing them together.

For Gen Xers, "It just doesn't matter" became a kind of battle cry for disenfranchised suburbanites. It's still a scene many associate with the genius of Bill Murray, who went on to make "Stripes," "Ghostbusters," "Groundhog Day" and too many Wes Anderson classics to mention.

Thirty-seven years after its release, "Meatballs" is a fun ride. And when the credits roll, the film does what most moviemakers want to do. It makes you feel good.

Tags: movies