Anyone looking for the moment when Bill Murray became “Bill Murray” should take a passing glance at some of the comedian’s early Saturday Night Live sketches, and then head straight to Meatballs, the 1979 summer-camp comedy that made Murray a movie star. Meatballs director Ivan Reitman had worked with Murray on a pre-SNL stage show in New York, and brought him in to liven up a sketchy, not-that-well-thought-out low-budget production, shot on location over the course of a month at an actual, working Ontario camp. Reitman’s instincts about Murray’s potential were spot-on. Meatballs is a slobby comedy in the M*A*S*H* and Animal House mode—albeit far less satirical and far more family-friendly—with dozens of characters and storylines crammed into an hour and a half. Murray is the constant, with his character serving as a role model to Camp North Star’s counselors and counselors-in-training, while helping bring a shy, awkward kid played by Chris Makepeace out of his shell. Murray improvised wildly on Meatballs, bringing a touch of real life to the scenes where he’s playfully grabbing his fellow counselors by the hair, or teaching Makepeace how to bet in blackjack. (“Twenty? What are you, some sort of madman? Is that what they teach you in that school of yours, 20?”) Then, late in the film, when Camp North Star is losing in the annual Olympiad to the snooty rich kids from Camp Mohawk, Murray rouses the troops with an off-the-cuff, from-the-heart, funny-but-true speech about how, “It just doesn’t matter!” And thus Murray’s place in movie history was secured, even before Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Rushmore, or Lost In Translation.
Murray aside, there’s a lot to like about Meatballs. The movie has a lumpy shape, and its jokes are often obvious and crude, but it’s a lot sweeter than the other raunchy comedies of the era, perhaps because it’s rated PG instead of R. Some of the ’70s and ’80s “slobs versus snobs” movies stack the deck with good-looking young people in “nerd” drag, but the kids in Meatballs look real: Some are attractive, some ordinary. In just a short stretch of screen time, Reitman, along with his cast and crew, is able to create the sense of a camp with its own history (complete with songs!), and to get across the mundanity of camp life, which involves a lot of folding clothes and making bunks in addition to the swimming, hiking, and games. But that’s also an example of what Murray brings to this movie: What makes Camp North Star special is that it has someone as charismatic and funny as Murray on staff. It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a decent camp. It just takes good people and a spirit of acceptance. Murray makes sure that everyone has a place at Camp North Star. (Even the one they call “Spaz.”) Thus the model for the “Bill Murray type” was set.
Key features: A spirited, nostalgic commentary track by Reitman and producer/screenwriter Daniel Goldberg, which is mostly about how the movie was completely re-cut after a disastrous early screening, and about how difficult Murray was to get a hold of, even before anyone had really heard of him.