I thought it was funnier. Meatballs looms large in the memory as Bill Murray’s first big film and a laugh riot along the lines of Caddyshack. It certainly has the right pedigree as it came from director Ivan Reitman and was co-written by Harold Ramis. The film was a hit when first released in 1979 and spawned several sequels and now it is making its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
It has not aged well. The humor is mild, even for 1979, when Animal House rewrote the rules a year earlier. This PG-rated comedy features the counselors and kids at Camp North Star, a ramshackle summer camp. Despite a reporter telling us the camp charges $1000 a week, we have no idea where the money goes given the dilapidated bunks, grounds, and facilities. The kids aren’t required to wear camp uniforms and they don’t seem to be following much of a schedule.
Written by Ramis, Len Blum, Dan Goldberg, and Janis Allen, the characters aren’t well-defined archetypes or satirical portraits of the kind of people you would find at such a place. We have no clue about the kids and their backgrounds, or the counselors and counselors in training (CITs). It doesn’t appear to be a very large camp given each age range is represented by about four people each.
When I went to sleepaway camp in the early 1970s there were plenty of things to ridicule and mock and the film barely touches on any of them making it an empty and disappointing exercise that most certainly does not hold up well on repeat viewing. Murray stars as the head counselor, Tripper Harrison, who meanders from activity to activity, with glimpses of the character that would grow up to become the star of Stripes, a far better collaboration with Ramis and Reitman a mere three years later.
There’s a sentimental storyline as he befriends Rudy Gerner (Chris Makepeace) the kid who has no friends and self-esteem issues. Of course, he goes jogging with Murray every day so when the big competition with another camp requires a marathon runner, you know who will race and who will win. The story includes several teen crushes and romances which are more cloyingly sweet than laugh-filled raunch.
Of the No Name cast, Makepeace went on to a short-lived teen heartthrob career while Murray took the money and ran back to Saturday Night Live. The rest never aspired to much with the exception of Matt Craven, who now stars on NCIS.
The film’s grainy low-budget feel is retained in the Blu-ray transfer and doesn’t look much better on high definition. The sound is nice and Elmer Bernstein’s score is a welcome touch. Unlike the most recent DVD release, the 2007 special edition, the only bonus track we get here is the original commentary from Reitman and Goldberg. Now, if you’ve never heard this before, it’s worth a listen to understand that Murray’s participation was never confirmed until he arrived for work and an hour of sub-plots were jettisoned to make room for the Murray/Makepeace sub-plot. It was shot fast and the haphazard feel robs the film of any strength it could have possessed.
Overall, the movie itself and the Blu-ray release are remarkably disappointing.