Summer camps in these parts function as a dumping ground — parents unload their kids, and breathe a sigh of relief for a few months sans brats. Meatballs is a fairly accurate representation of the summer camp experience — the frequently awkward gender dynamics, raging hormones, idiotically competitive mandatory “fun,” and crappy food.
Summer camp in Southern Ontario was a mixed bag for the authors of this site. It was frequently a rewarding, eye-opening experience featuring all sorts of novel activities, from kayaking to sack races… However, there was a dark side too, especially if friends weren’t immediately made.
And the summer camp / prison similarities weren’t lost on us: In both, people are sent there against their will; there are fractured group dynamics; cliques are formed for self-preservation; lunch is a large, communal experience (with frequently bad food); authority figures are looked at askance; and there are strictly enforced curfews…
In the 1979 Ivan Reitman production that is Meatballs, we catch a small glimpse of the movie star Chicagoan Bill Murray would become. Here he’s Tripper, an aging wiseacre camp counselor who treats his job with as little earnestness as he can possibly muster, who openly mocks the kitchen mystery meat during his morning camp announcements.
He befriends loser/social outcast, Rudy (Chris Makepeace), a slight, effeminate wallflower who’s picked on by his Lord of the Flies fellow campers. Together, they play small-stakes card games (literally, for “peanuts”) and bond over long-distance running. All the while, Murray’s Tripper amuses his young pal with age-inappropriate jokes that’d be kiboshed in today’s era of hyper-sensitivity.
And like period kid movies, Meatballs features the usual assemblage of near-80s archetypes: jocks, hot girls, nerds, fatties, loners, etc.
Dueling camps (and their counselors/counselors-in-training) go at it for all the glory, Camp North Star (the relatable middle-class good-guys/gals) VS. Camp Mohawk (the stuck-up, attractive, older, richy-riches).
Ultimately, Rudy comes out of his shell to win it for our heroes.
Meatballs recedes when Murray’s not in the frame, but when he is…things come alive.
*** (out of 5)
[Listen to our podcast about Meatballs on the Really Awful Movies Podcast]