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Meatballs (1979)


Bill Murray has enjoyed a career renaissance in recent years, playing the model of middle age and forlorn cool in movies from precocious youngsters such as Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson. Having cachet in the independent film community is very nice, and it does make for some good magazine articles.

Still, I miss the laugh-out-loud Bill Murray, the one from circa 1979 to 1993. And, really, with American comedy in such a precarious state at the multiplex, isn’t it time he dug into his old bag of tricks? Would anyone blame Murray if he broke ranks with the art house crowd and helped revive the Farrelly brothers’ career?

If it leads to something half as enjoyable as Meatballs, the movie that launched Murray’s film career, I’d be thrilled. Murray plays Tripper, the head counselor at Camp North Star. Basically, the movie revolves around the mischievous Tripper putting the moves on a fellow counselor, harassing the camp’s boss, and befriending a lonesome camper (Chris Makepeace of My Bodyguard fame). There’s also some pseudo-sexual shenanigans involving the teen-aged counselors in training and some spirited pranks with a neighboring, well-to-do camp.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but director Ivan Reitman and his gang of writers (including Harold Ramis) make it work. The movie is casually paced so you don’t mind the lack of structure, especially since it’s delivered by a good-natured and good-humored young cast that has fun the entire time. Also, Reitman and his writers don’t just overload you with goofball antics; they add some authentic human interaction. Murray’s confidence-building rapport with Makepeace feels right, as does the quest of the two nerdy counselors-in-training to find love on the lake. Nothing feels tacked on.

Murray, of course, is a big reason why everything here is so entertaining. He’s charming and obnoxious and hilarious. He’s like Bluto from Animal House with a soul and without the beer gut. The stench of Animal House had to be all over Meatballs, which was released in 1979. Reitman directed both, Ramis wrote both, and Murray, like John Belushi, got his start on Saturday Night Live. But for all of its bawdy fun, Meatballs is a sweet movie that warms the heart without being disingenuous or saccharine. And in his brief career in television and movies, Belushi was never known for displaying that emotional range. That Murray can portray such a range has given him a career that’s gone beyond Stripes and Ghostbusters, even if that’s a mixed blessing.

The DVD includes a commentary track and a making-of documentary.