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Bill Murray gets campy in 'Meatballs'

The ”SNL” star became a bona fide leading man in the 1979 comedy, now on Blu-ray

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Current Status:
In Season
Bill Murray, Matt Craven
Ivan Reitman
Paramount Pictures

We gave it a B

After Foul Play and Animal House turned Chevy Chase and John Belushi into overnight Hollywood heavyweights, big-studio carpetbaggers looked east again to the cast of Saturday Night Live and tried to divine which cast member would break out next. Their verdict? Bill Murray. Back then, Murray might have seemed the unlikeliest candidate. Sure, his wit was so quick it seemed to run on rocket fuel. But his humor was also drenched in the kind of nihilistic sarcasm that doesn’t always translate into mainstream likability. Still, the merry prankster did his damnedest to rein himself in and play by the rules in the sloppy, silly summer-camp comedy Meatballs (1979, PG, 1 hr., 31 mins.). Just out on Blu-ray with a recycled commentary from co-writer/producer Dan Goldberg and director Ivan Reitman on the EXTRAS, Meatballs is essentially a tamer, more teen-friendly version of Animal House — grafting the classic snobs-versus-slobs formula onto a battle between the low-rent Camp North Star and their upper-crust rival across the lake, Camp Mohawk. Murray plays Tripper, North Star’s head counselor, a laid-back, rules-flouting Casanova in a Hawaiian shirt who dispenses gonzo wisdom to a staff of horny trainee archetypes (the fatty who stuffs his maw with hot dogs; the four-eyed nerd named, of course, Spaz; the short-shorts-wearing hotties; and so on). The pint-size campers are, for the most part, hyperactive and beside the point, except for one sad-sack misfit named Rudy (played by My Bodyguard‘s Chris Makepeace). Tripper doesn’t seem to care about much at the outset of the film aside from scoring with chicks and curing his perpetual hangover, but something about this awkward loner manages to crack his smart-ass shell. He’s determined to teach the kid — and all the other outcasts gathered around his campfire — that ”It just doesn’t matter.” They may not stand a chance in their ridiculous end-of-summer Olympiad against Camp Mohawk, but at least they can get their asses handed to them with a bit of style. Murray is a lot better than the rest of the movie, even if he doesn’t seem particularly invested in the film’s more sincere moments (and you could argue that he hasn’t gotten any more convincing at playing earnest in the 33 years since Meatballs came out), but it’s clear from the second the movie starts that you’re watching a movie star being born. B