Mostly notable as Bill Murray’s movie-star debut—and his first collaboration with director Ivan Reitman, of Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984) fame—the Canadian indie Meatballs is an amiably insouciant comedy. The picture depicts how the counselors and kids at a second-rate summer camp embrace their also-ran status throughout a summer filled with mischief, sex, and sticking it to their obnoxious counterparts at another camp. Although the premise suggests a lowbrow comedy filled with bathroom humor and panty raids, Meatballs is all bark and no bite, at least in terms of the usual teen-comedy tropes. Excepting a tame sequence of dudes eavesdropping on an all-girls cabin, the sex in the movie is discreet and romantic, and the biggest bathroom joke is a toilet flush broadcast over a loudspeaker. Even the naughty language is comparatively innocuous.
Instead of crassness, the movie focuses on sweet storylines about people nurturing and supporting each other. Murray plays Tripper Harrison, ringleader of the CITs (counselors-in-training) at Camp North Star, an underfunded facility catering to lower-middle-class kids. Tripper’s the quintessential Murray character, a cocky jokester who talks a great anarchistic line even though he’s basically decent; his raison d’être is getting others to loosen up and resist authority. Tripper is also the only properly developed character in the picture, presumably because Murray added interesting flourishes during production. Everyone else is a cliché—the horny nerd, the tweaked pyromaniac, the uptight administrator.
Most of the story concerns Tripper’s sensitive friendship with a lonely young misfit, Rudy (Chris Makepeace), Tripper’s courtship with fellow CIT Roxanne (Kate Lynch), and Camp North Star’s various run-ins with the stuck-up folks at neighboring Camp Mohawk. Yet the story is primarily just a string of random vignettes until the climax, when the camps face off in a sports competition. (Cue rousing music as unlikely hero Rudy saves the day.) Though generally pleasant to watch, Meatballs lacks anything particularly memorable—excepting, of course, Murray’s wiseass persona—but Makepeace, who later starred in My Bodyguard (1980), does a lot with a little, turning his thinly written character into a empathetic screen presence. Furthermore, it’s hard not to root for the ne’er-do-wells at Camp North Star, and Murray’s appeal is undeniable.