Love & laughter lakeside

Kinder, gentler cousin of Animal House

Published: Jun 26 2014, 01:01:am

Tuesday, July 17, 1979.
MEATBALLS. Written by Len Blum, Dan Goldberg, Janis Allen and Harold Ramis. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Running time: 92 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some suggestive scenes and coarse language.
THE SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGISTS are going to love Meatballs.
    Picture an idyllic lake in Ontario's cottage country. It is past sunset. A bonfire crackles on the beach as a clutch of healthy, happy-looking youths raise their voices in song.
    "We are the CITs, so pity us."
    CITs? I never went to camp as a kid so it had to be explained to me. CITs are Counsellors In Training.
    "The kids are brats, the food is hideous."
    CITs are the in-betweens. A little too old to be campers and not quite old enough to be full-fledged counsellors, they work for room and board. The highlight of their summer is an overnight canoe trip away from the camp and the kids.
    ''We're gonna smoke and drink and fool around. We are the North Star CITs!"
    Filmgoers have already fallen for Meatballs, the summer's brightest comedy. Episodic and off-the-wall, it mixes together elements of 1970's M*A*S*HNational Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and Disney-style television comedies like Spin and Marty.
    The hero of the piece is Camp North Star's head counsellor, a friendly flake named Tripper (Bill Murray). We know he's a local VIP because he controls the public address system.
     As in M.A.S.H., the camp announcements are funny — "Here's an update on tonight's dinner. It was veal." — and serve to move the plot along.
    As played by TV comedian Murray, Tripper is a genial crazy. We're not told an awful lot about his background but, if he's a student, he probably goes to Faber College. If he's a frat man, he's certainly a Delta. Murray looks like John Vernon by way of John Belushi.
    It just stands to reason. Ivan Reitman, director of Meatballs, was the producer of Animal House. Indeed, the only real difference between the two films is in the strength of the humour.
    The Faber College saga was geared to Lampoon readers, who are  mostly young adults. It was full of food fights, dead horses and rubber gloves: all great, gross guffaws. Camp North Star's story is gentler, somewhat more genteel, and definitely suitable for the subteens.
    What makes it special is an understated, almost wistful subplot involving Tripper and an awkward young camper named Rudy (Chris Makepeace), the small depressed kid who is not fitting in at all well. Tripper shows an unexpected sensitivity to Rudy's problems, and is wise enough not to make the boy feel centred out.
    The film builds to a wild, no-holds-barred sports day, pitting Camp North Star against Camp Mohawk, the tony, $1,000-a-week rich kids' resort across the lake. Naturally, victory hangs on the outcome of the very last event, a cross-country marathon race.
    As luck would have it, Camp North Star's star runner can't do it. Tripper pushes Rudy forward. This kid can do it, he says.
    Beneath the pranks, the put-ons, the quick quips — "Is that a bra you're wearing, or are you expecting an assassination attempt?'' — the summertime mating rituals and the manic gags, Meatballs has a warm, soft heart.
     If you never  went to camp, it will make you wish you had.
*   *   *
    In Hollywood, they're hailing Ivan Reitman as a genius. Animal House, his 1978 picture, made $52.4 million domestically, and now [1979] occupies 15th place on Variety's list of all-time top-grossing films.
    Meatballs, made in Canada for $1.4 million, earned that back during its first week in New York City. The Toronto-based filmmaker now has an office in Los Angeles.
     Reitman, 31, succeeded against the odds. Ten years ago. while he was still a student, the good people of Ontario wanted to throw him in jail. His crime?
     Making movies.
    In the mid-1960s, Hamilton's McMaster University had a particularly dynamic student film society. Called the McMaster Film Board, it made its own pictures. Together with Dan Goldberg (producer of Meatballs), Reitman produced a 90-minute feature called The Columbus of Sex. John Hofsess, who later became a film critic, directed.
    On August 8, 1969, police seized their picture at its premiere showing. They were charged with making and showing an obscene film. For the next 10 months, they were in and out of courtrooms.
    In the end, Hofsess was acquitted on a technicality. Goldberg and Reitman took the fall. Convicted, they were fined and put on probation.
    Despite such an official invitation to get lost, Reitman continued making movies. In 1973, he directed Cannibal Girls. He produced David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). All three were Canadian pictures that were successfully distributed in the U.S.
     They all made money.
    In the States, they're calling Reitman a genius. In Ontario, they're reading about him in Time magazine, and agreeing that it must be true.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Among Camp North Star's CITs was the actress who played the 1970s' most beguiling Alice in Wonderland, Kristine DeBell. She can be seen (and heard) in this campfire sing-along involving Bill Murray and most of the film's cast. Earlier this month, DeBell joined many of her summer-camp colleagues in Toronto for a Meatballs reunion held to benefit the Montreal-based charity, Action Against Hunger Canada. On June 4, she shared the TIFF stage with actors Harvey Atkin and Chris Makepeace, producer Don Carmody and writers Dan Goldberg and Leon Blum to reminisce about working with Murray, director Ivan Reitman and the late Harold Ramis.