Lionsgate // 1979 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 12th, 2012
Are you ready for the summer?
It's amazing that, more than three decades after its release, the 1979 summer camp comedy Meatballs is still mentioned in the conversations around "classic" comedies of the era -- a list that includes Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, and Stripes. Sure, all of those movies feature at least one member of the original Saturday Night Live cast, but Meatballs doesn't have much else in common with any of them. Well, maybe Stripes.
Bill Murray (Coffee and Cigarettes) stars as Tripper, the head counselor at Camp North Star, a summer camp populated by slackers, losers, and underachievers. He spends the summer romancing fellow counselor Roxanne (Kate Lynch, Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, one of the least conventional leading ladies to appear in a movie), encouraging new camper Rudy (a very young Chris Makepeace of Vamp) to come out of his shell, and leading the whole camp into athletic competition with the rich brats at Camp Mohawk using the mantra "It just doesn't matter!"
Meatballs hasn't aged well. At all. It's very much a relic of its time, almost like a Beach Party movie, carrying with it a kind of goofy charm. But it's not very funny. It's the original Summer Camp movie, like Wet Hot American Summer without the satire and jokes (it's what that movie is riffing on), or Sleepaway Camp without the gender confusion and murder. There are horny counselors who don't take their jobs seriously. There's a fat guy and a nerd named "Spaz" (complete with tape on his glasses). There's a big game against the rival camp, which has more money and resources than Camp North Star. Every summer camp movie cliche you can imagine is in Meatballs, many of which originated here.
Of course, at the center of the movie, is Bill Murray in his first leading role since hitting it big on SNL. His performance is such a strange thing, since he distances himself from the material at almost every turn by remaining aloof, silly, and incessantly improvising. I would be surprised to find out that Murray delivered any of his lines as scripted. It seems more likely that director Ivan Reitman decided early on to just point the camera and let him loose. And because it's Bill Murray, I'm willing to go with it. He's one of, if not my favorite comic actors of all time. But even the most talented comedic performer needs to be reigned in to really be funny, and Murray has no leash in Meatballs. What makes his characters in Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day so funny is the tension between his silliness, sarcasm, and some sort of establishment. Here he's got nothing to bounce up against and there's none of that tension between his character and the rest of the movie. Part of that is because he's a steamroller; part of it is because the entirety of Meatballs matches Murray's goofy energy.
The Blu-ray (which can be picked up for a steal at under $10) comes courtesy of Lionsgate, who does just fine by the movie. Sure, it looks old and like it was made pretty cheaply, but I have little doubt this 1.78:1/1080p HD presentation is the best the movie has ever looked. I'd hardly call the movie sharp looking, but colors are natural and well-rendered, detail is decent, and (age flaws aside) the transfer has been cleaned up nicely. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track gets the job done, but sounds hollow and thin. Still, the dialogue comes through and that's all that really matters.
The lone bonus feature is an engaging commentary from Reitman and producer Dan Goldberg, sometimes proving even more entertaining than the movie itself. This chatty, informal discussion about the production proves the two have a terrific recollection about the shoot and great stories to tell. Neither seems to have an inflated sense of the kind of movie they made, either, which is refreshing. They stay grounded, even though the film has achieved "classic" status in some circles.
No, Meatballs isn't exactly a classic. It's impossible to imagine the movie picking up any new fans in 2012, but those with fond memories of it will likely enjoy this trip down memory lane. At the very least, it represents an early draft of Bill Murray's screen persona, and that's worth something. It's also relatively sweet and innocent, which is interesting because a few years later movie audiences couldn't go to summer camp without having to watch every character be hacked up by an axe murderer. So there's that, but...
It. Just. Doesn't. Matter.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG