There are a bunch of movies that I've watched before and either didn't like or flat out hated, yet other people love. I came to realize that a lot of them have one thing in common: Bill Murray. It's not that I hate Bill Murray. I grew up watching both Ghostbusters films over and over again. He's fantastic in Little Shop of Horrors, and I enjoyed his parts in Stripes and Caddyshack. Part of the problem is that he loves to work with Wes Anderson, and two of his films are on the list of ones I hated. But The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou turned me around on how I felt about Anderson as a filmmaker, and I've been wanting to revisit his earlier films ever since. So instead of just re-watching a few key films, I thought it might be fun to go through all of Murray's films in order. That way, at least, I know I'm going to enjoy some of them. This will not be a marathon, but rather just an ongoing project I'll get to when I have the chance.
This project will only include feature films, as covering all of Murray's appearances on television, particularly when he was a castmember of SNL and SCTV, would be a project in and of themselves. So I'm starting with Meatballs. IMDB mentions another film Next Stop, Greenwich Village before this one, but my understanding is that it's a "blink and you miss it" type cameo. He's not even credited in the film. So we'll move on to the film where he plays a starring role.
I had never seen this film before starting this project. My main knowledge of the film was a reference in The Baby-sitters Club Summer Vacation book, where the recurring joke was the girls watched this film and therefore thought being camp counselors would be a fun idea. I also remember my young mind frequently confusing it with Spaceballs, solely because of the title similarity. So I wasn't sure what to expect from this one.
Having now watched it, I'm not sure how someone could see it and think they'd want to be a camp counselor. I suppose there are moments where it looks moderately fun, but considering that most of the teens are a bunch of goofs, I can't really imagine relating to them. Murray's role isn't particularly relatable either. I now can't help but think that perhaps Ann M. Martin saw the film and thought "How horribly unrealistic. Let me write something closer to how it actually goes." Of course I can't really say how accurate either version is, as I've never been to summer camp in my life.
What I can say is that this film has not aged well over the years. The music is a sampling of the worst styles of music that existed in the lates 70s, with bland disco numbers and bland soulful songs meant to be touching but just end up rather boring. And on top of that, a rather annoying kids choir sings the theme song. Most of it sounds to be created just for the film, and none of it particularly inspired or worth listening to outside of that context. They were apparently quite proud of it though, as the ending credits start with the music rather than the cast.
As far as the cast, there aren't too many standouts here past Murray. Chris Makepeace, who plays shy kid Rudy, is certainly noticable with his bright blue eyes and girly eyelashes, but in terms of acting he's just okay. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, who portray the group of gawky and horny teenagers well enough. Judging by the film's poster and setting, you might expect this to be a raunchy comedy like Porky's or Animal House, but in fact most of the sexual matters are all talk. There's certainly no nudity to be found here. While some situations make this a little too mature for young children, a lot of it is mild enough to be PG.
Speaking of those situations, there is one scene that made me flat out uncomfortable. Early on we see Murray's character Tripper flirting with another camp counselor Roxanne, and she doesn't look too interested. When the two of them are alone in a cabin, he grabs her and starts wrestling with her. She's clearly uncomfortable, shouting at him to get off of her, and he refuses. He even gropes her. The scene goes on for what feels far too long for comfort. Toward the end he wrestles until she's on top of him, and when the camp director comes in, he acts like she attacked him. The director doesn't believe him, but he also doesn't reprimand him and Roxanne doesn't speak up at all. Worse yet, this is the beginning of their "romance" for the rest of the film, where we're supposed to just let this go because apparently she really does like him, and the two of them end up together in the end.
This type of character is one Murray is known for, probably best shortened to "loveable scamp." He breaks the rules, can be rude to people, doesn't take no for an answer, but it turns out okay because he has a big heart. We see it as he helps Rudy gain confidence in himself, and again throughout the film as he encourages Camp North Star in their rivalry with nearby Camp Mohawk. His cries of "It just doesn't matter!" rally them to victory in the Olympiad competition, and he even gets Rudy to be the star hero for them all. The problem is that the balance between scoundrel and nice guy for Murray are just too far out of whack in this film. The scene with Roxanne in particular really ruins it for me.
Even beyond that, I have a hard time enjoying this film. The plot is really loose, with the idea of the rivalry with Camp Mohawk not really kicking into high gear until the latter half. It feels a lot more like a series of comedy sketches set at a summer camp, and most of the sketches aren't particularly funny. This is a film that thinks pulling a guy's pants down is the ultimate joke. With the mix of young kids and teenagers here, it seems like they couldn't decide what kind of film they wanted - feel good inspiration for the little ones or sexy teen romp for the older set. As such both styles clash poorly and feel stilted.
Later sequels would take the raunchy comedy angle and run with it. Since neither Murray nor director Ivan Reitman had anything to do with them, I won't be taking a look at them. It's not my kind of film anyway.
Another interesting thing for me is that Murray was 27 years old when this movie was filmed. The combination of his widow's peak and near permanent five o' clock shadow make him look much older than that. He seems to be the kind of guy who was born old.
Beyond revisiting films I want to give another chance, another thing about this project is it allows me to watch some obscure films I've never heard of before. Next up is Mr. Mike's Mondo Video.