Meatballs was the second entry in a series of Ivan Reitman-Harold Ramis collaborations, including Animal House, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. It was also the first Bill Murray vehicle, yet it transcends the type-casting that dogged Murray over his first decade in filmmaking. Murrays early characters were typically slackers/scoundrels that hammed it up and then redeemed themselves in the final act. While Murrays Tripper in Meatballs has many clownish moments, he is in no need of redemption; for everyone around him, he is the source of wisdom (although he needs to humbly and happily earn the favors of the formidable Roxanne). The film focuses on Trippers patronage of Wudy the Wabbit*, but in fact Tripper is responsible for the welfare of everyone at Camp NorthStar; he is the most grown-up person in the film.
In hindsight, it is clear that Murray had always been instinctively aware of the delicate balance between comedy and gravity, and that his more recent triumphs are best understood as the fruition of his talents. But it neither Murrays performance nor his transcendence of the limitations of the (pre-)teen comedy genre that endears Meatballs to me. Proximally, while I never saw it in the theaters (my family moved from Tucson to Seattle in the summer of 1979, a rather traumatic displacement for me), I must have seen it a couple dozen times on Showtime, surpassed perhaps only by my uncounted viewings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of (Sili)Khan.
Despite not having seen the film in Tucson, for me Meatballs very specifically evokes what it was like to be ten years old and alone, whether away at camp, attending a new school, or moving to a new city. Ten is an age when one learns that there are different kinds of friends, and that it pays to be selective. For many kids, it is also when they are first exposed to older teenagers who are not simply surrogate parents but confidants who will give them the inside skinny on growing up. For all their foibles, heedless hair, and unfortunate clothing, the counselors-in-training at Camp NorthStar look exactly like the teenagers I looked up to in 1978-9. The film is also severely dated by the wretched montage-ballads, but I must confess that these days, when confronted by images of plastic aviator glasses and Castro-district-shorts set to swoony lyrics, there is no other word to describe my reaction than nostalgia.
Of course, I never attended anything like Camp NorthStar; who sends their kids away for the entire summer? These are supposed to be the poor kids? I went to camp a week at a time, both in the Chiricahua Mountains and on the shores of Puget Sound, at most twice but usually once in a single summer. It was church camp, but that didnt seem to make a large difference to either the campers or the counselors appointed to watch over us. Even after such a short duration, there were always tears on the last day (which returned unbidden last month when we picked Oscar up from his day care for the last time).
I suppose Im obliged to make the Old Fart observation that they dont make movies like Meatballs anymore. A year after it was released, Jason Vorhees hit the theaters and forever changed the way cinema regards summer camp. More significantly, teen comedies are now either too ironic or too gross to pause to celebrate the fleeting fellowship between 17-year-olds who give up part of their precious summer to adjudicate pillow fights between 8-year-olds. "If you make one good friend a summer, youre doing pretty well." Howd you make out this summer?
* Meatballs also inaugurated my ill-starred identification with Chris Makepeace, as I can trace my habit of early rising to Rudys magical discovery of Trippers jogging regimen. This fascination would result in a latent anti-urbanism after My Bodyguard, and end in temple-pounding tears with Mazes and Monsters.