Forty years ago this summer, Bill Murray had his first starring role in a film. It’s still his best.
Tripper Harrison is on a mission. He’s ready for the summer and ready for primetime. As head counselor of Camp North Star, all he has to do is make sure his counselors take care of their kid assignments, keep Camp head Morty off his back, and that his girlfriend Roxanne knows he is madly in love with her. He does this by being, well, Bill Murray. His first film out, Billy already has the power to bewilder and intoxicate us in the most unlikely of ways. We love Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Lost in Translation, Zombieland, and so many others, but we get everything we need from a little indie film initially just titled ‘Summer Camp’, Meatballs, in that least provocative of genres, the summer camp movie.
Across his career, Murray is always at his best when he’s down in the trenches, standing with the little guy. He works best with outsiders, and Meatballs’ motley gang of summer camp misfits certainly qualify. He loves a fight against the Man, and has no trouble rallying his forces into success over the rich kids across the lake at Camp Mohawk; he does this by making a loner kid the true hero, giving him the experience of a lifetime. Bill’s got no problem taking the back seat and letting others drive, it’s what he does best. He doesn’t need to change the name of Spaz, a guy so stereotypically nerdy it makes you cringe. He simply has to tell kids making fun of Spaz, ‘The other night? He and I went out, he got us five nurses, three couldn’t report to work the next morning. He’s a sex machine.’ Leaving the jeering idiots scratching their heads, adeptly altering reality in his wake.
The heart of Meatballs is loner kid Rudy Gerner. After the buses drop the kids at camp, we see Rudy, head down and depressed. He’s alone and unsure of where to go next. It’s so cliché, it’s laughable. “You must be the short, depressed kid we ordered” is Murray’s first line to Rudy. Tripper’s mission, indeed, the true mission of all camp counselors nation-wide, is to make sure no one is singled out or left behind; that would defeat the point of summer itself. His anarchic inclinations and unruly leadership style spoke volumes to kids like me who saw Meatballs at 13. We already knew most adults were dumb, boring and asked too many questions. This was a guy who organized special late-night missions of anarchy, pleaded to his girlfriend Roxanne for make out sessions and wrestling matches, and simply on arrival was the coolest cat at the dining hall dance party. It goes on and on. In all this he includes Rudy, giving one the impression that Rudy is a not so different version of himself at an earlier age. The time he makes for Rudy was a lesson I picked up quick: look around and include the least among us, be ready to make friends in the unlikeliest of places, and always be ready with a joke.
The opening scene of Meatballs is a statement of fact: Bill Murray has arrived, fully formed and realized. Rolling out of bed and flipping on a PA system, he picks up a mic that broadcasts throughout the grounds of Camp North Star; this is his camp and his wake-up show. His monologue is informative (‘it’s a chilly 43 outside this morning’), politically incorrect (he puts on a bagpipe record, saying ‘and now, our national anthem’) and downright avant-garde (says ‘Whoops! Hope I didn’t hit anybody’ when he spits down the drain). Murray is firing on all cylinders, and this is just the first thirty seconds.
Director Ivan Reitman shares the story that he literally did not know if Murray was going to be in the movie until he showed up on set, a time when actors whereabouts were often unknowns. And if Bill’s own stories about hitch-hiking and thumbing around the east coast are true, I like to imagine him catching a ride in a truck full of apples or cheap shoes, lighting out for the territories, some random trucker dropping off an unknown comic on the road to his first film shoot.
He’s beyond confident, a Zen kid ready for fun and games, ready to hand the world a big bag of what we all now collectively call, a ‘Bill Murray Moment’. We quickly get another hilarious scene where he catches the straight world with its pants down (Misrepresenting himself as ‘Jerry Aldini’, program director for rival Camp Mohawk to a newscaster shooting a clip for local TV) and proceeds to do what Bill does, blow people’s minds.
I could go on and on about Meatballs, but instead just go watch it, okay? Yes, it has dated commentary, sexist material and behaviors that today would be unacceptable. Forget those parts. Rather, watch Murray rally a group of kids who go from depressed and sullen the night before they lose their 13th inter-lake Olympiad in a row to a chanting, cheering team that is forced to realize that yes, they may lose the game, but it just doesn’t matter. How you play is the way you end up living your life. And while some moral lessons are absent from this film, that one remains time-tested and true. Helping others rise up is a magical thing, a moment in our lives that we should never stop reaching for.