Editor’s Notes: The following reviews are part of our coverage for TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy which runs from July 17th to August 29th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Free from the specter of nostalgia about the summer camp experience or the film itself, I can confidently state that Meatballs can be best experienced today for its influence and placement at the forefront of a new brand of raucous North American comedy. Conceived by Canadian writer-director-producer Ivan Reitman as a quickly-shot directorial vehicle following his loss of that role on National Lampoon’s Animal House, the film introduced to cinema audiences the insouciant, above-the-fray wit of Second City, National Lampoon, and then-recent Saturday Night Live alum Bill Murray as head counselor Tripper Harrison. Set at the second-rate Camp North Star (the real-life Camp White Pine at Haliburton, Ontario, where Reitman and writers Dan Goldberg and Len Blum had attended as kids), Meatballs marries the anti-snob, us-against-them mentality of Animal House with counterculture anarchy of M*A*S*H in a more kid- and teenager-friendly milieu, becoming in the process an independent blockbuster and one of the most financially successful Canadian films even to this day. Yet it became a victim of its own success, spawning several forgettable sequels and a host of imitators, remarkable only for the motormouth performance and relatively gentle sensibility at its core.
Meatballs throws together many of the now reigning clichés of teen-oriented comedy: the summer camp setting where kids and kids-at-heart can interact; competitions to be amusingly fouled up; free sexuality amongst the campers or amongst the counselors; the fat kid, the nerdy kid, and the outsider kid who lifts himself into popularity; a soundtrack featuring a silly theme (performed by Rick “Disco Duck” Dees) and recent popular hits (David Naughton’s “Makin’ It” among them); underdog misfits organized against a rival camp of jocks/rich kids/elites. Few of these elements remain fresh when seen alongside what came in the film’s wake, but the overall sense of sincere camaraderie between the younger campers and older counselors (or CITs, counselors-in-training) shines through uniquely within its comedic subgenre. The arc of the story is from disorganization to togetherness at the expense of snooty Camp Mohawk, but even at the end of the triumphal athletic Olympiad a brief moment is spared to watch the disillusioned Mohawk marathon runner (James McLarty) be consoled by his buddies. This “no hard feelings” aftertaste in no way overcomes the celebratory mood that culminates in a loving campfire scene among the CITs, but it’s a gesture that bespeaks a healthy understanding of competition and humanity in a setting that would soon became as well known for slasher flicks as for coming-of-age teen comedies. In comparison to its coarser cinematic followers, the movie is also surprisingly and good-naturedly chaste; there’s much talk of conquests and getting lucky but no nudity and only a single moonlit skinny-dipping tryst between Tripper and fellow CIT Roxanne (Kate Lynch). Girls and boys have surprising parity, each at times wielding sexual desire and agency, while the camp is peopled by realistically attractive and physically non-idealized, if decidedly unmemorable, characters. All of the CITs end up happily coupled by the end, another winning plot point that distinguishes the movie from its increasingly misogynistic, teen-oriented children on screen.
Few of these elements remain fresh when seen alongside what came in the film’s wake, but the overall sense of sincere camaraderie between the younger campers and older counselors shines through.
In the end, though, most of what’s distinctive in the film’s dialogue and tone is directly attributable to Bill Murray. From first frame to last, Meatballs is his plaything, whether he’s sarcastically announcing over the PA system (even more shades of M*A*S*H) that “Arts and crafts has been canceled due to bad taste,” or nurturing/chiding the dejected Rudy Gerner (Chris Makepeace) into winning the climactic marathon. Tripper is hero, narrator, big brother, Greek chorus, and critic all rolled into one, with the director fully acknowledging in interviews that Murray improvised punchlines left and right. The film’s comedic quality ebbs and flows by Murray’s gaping absence or sardonic presence, and not even his steady stream of one-liners can ultimately overcome the saccharine plot, now-commonplace gags, or host of less well-defined characters. The behind-the-scenes story is that the actor wasn’t one-hundred percent on board the project until just after shooting began, leaving Reitman to begin photography without the one star he knew could anchor the film. Besides attesting to Murray’s legendarily difficult personality, it speaks to how crucial he was in shaping the finished product into anything much more than a generic quickie summer comedy.
Murray’s confidently unanswered, wise-ass wit, perfectly suited here to defying all authority, would become his trademark and be refined in future roles until cosmic fate had to intervene in Scrooged and Groundhog Day to cut him down to size and reveal the humanity within. In many ways, Tripper is the template the actor would follow (and box office would, too) throughout his career, to which he would gradually add shades of world-weariness and an age-appropriate, dawning sense of mortality; but his fundamentally freewheeling comic intelligence remained in part after part. For instance, given the shift in relative ages, there are still hints of Tripper’s compassionate mentoring of lovable loser Rudy in Herman Blume’s relationship with precocious Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Such continuity speaks to Murray as actor-as-auteur, controlling his on-screen persona through choice of roles and extreme marketability, a trait that began with Meatballs and only expanded under subsequent direction by Ivan Reitman.
[notification type=”star”]56/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Meatballs became a victim of its own success, spawning several forgettable sequels and a host of imitators, remarkable only for the motormouth performance and relatively gentle sensibility at its core.[/notification]
Following the unprecedented success of Meatballs, Ivan Reitman and the writing team of Len Blum and Dan Goldberg (along with Harold Ramis of National Lampoon and SCTV, who had polished up the Meatballs screenplay) collaborated on a script based on the idea of counterculture icons Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong joining the Army. Only when Cheech and Chong couldn’t commit and newly bona fide movie star Bill Murray (under Ramis’s writing and direction in Caddyshack) came aboard did the military comedy Stripes crystallize. Slacker John Winger (Murray) loses his job, his girlfriend, and his car in a particularly bitter single day and needs a drastic change to transform and organize his life. He brings his and buddy Russell Ziskey’s (Ramis) caustic, intelligent wit to bear on enlisting in the armed forces, turning upside-down the highly-structured world of basic training, just like he had done to the golf course in Caddyshack and the summer camp in Meatballs. Such a move delivered to the evolving Murray persona new heights of mainstream success, cementing his underdog status with higher stakes, more serious on-screen opposition, and more explosive consequences than ever before.
Despite the abundance of gunfire and explosions, nobody appears to die on screen, playing up the film’s emphasis on rescue and camaraderie over the late Cold War-era denunciation and defeat of the Commies.
Unlike his previous hits, which place Murray’s protagonist as one mere comedic element within an already stylized universe, Stripes begins in a realistic Chicago with Winger’s epic beating at the hands of fate. He’s humiliated, distraught, down-and-out, and misunderstood, his zingers to cope with the situation falling consistently on deaf ears. At his lowest point, he catches a serendipitous Army recruitment commercial and convinces his “kind of a pacifist” best friend Russell that military training and discipline are the best options. It’s here that his natural leadership abilities and anti-authoritarian streak blossom against his daunting, demanding circumstances, especially the authority of his pugnacious, no-nonsense drill instructor Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates). In Meatballs, Murray had no real antagonist, and in Caddyshack, it was a rambunctious gopher puppet; Stripes finally pits Murray’s verbally dextrous hero against a worthily imposing opponent. Sam Peckinpah stalwart Oates has the right career cred and physical presence to stand against Murray’s thoroughly modern, insubordinate wise-ass, but the two gain mutual respect once Winger shapes up the outfit following a weapons exercise mishap by incompetent Captain Stillman (John Larroquette) that puts Hulka out of commission until after graduation.
In an improvement over Meatballs, the film surrounds Murray with exemplary if then-unknown comic allies in subverting the Army’s rigidity. Ramis is even more co-lead than sidekick given his history with Murray on stage and off in Chicago’s Second City and in the National Lampoon, and their affectionate joke runs and occasional bickering strengthen their overall rapport. John Candy would later become a star in his own right, but here he’s a good-natured big man who finds outlets for his aggression. In very early roles, John Diehl and Judge Reinhold play the platoon’s most impressionable and drug-addled members, respectively, revealing some gags from the script’s earliest incarnation as a Cheech and Chong vehicle. In the film’s most pivotal and memorable sequence, Winger and Ziskey struggle to very quickly choreograph a parade drill for graduation, and Winger delivers his hilariously rousing and unconventionally patriotic speech comparing America to a nation of unwanted mutts. Here, at the single most dispiriting point in the outfit’s basic training, Winger pulls out the same mix of underdog wisdom and excessive fervency that marked Bluto’s (John Belushi) misguided inspiration in Animal House and Tripper’s stirring call to ignore the rival camp’s superiority in Meatballs. Its power comes not only through its basic rah-rah Americanism but more importantly its embrace of the recruits’ eccentric, myriad makeup of physical, temperamental, and ethnic types.
To help with avoiding the wrath of Hulka and organizing the incredibly misfit bunch of recruits, Winger and Ziskey find favor with a pair of lovely and willing MPs, Stella (P.J. Soles) and Louise (Sean Young), who bail out the goofballs from several different scrapes. They are remarkably even partners for the leads, engaging in playful, seemingly improvised banter and firing weapons with equal facility. Soles in particular works as a fitting love interest opposite Murray, holding her own beat by beat like Kate Lynch had in Meatballs and Sigourney Weaver would in Ghostbusters. However, beside these strong female protagonists, one of the most infamous scenes in Stripes is a conventionally 1980s showcase for T&A in a mud-wrestling bar where the recruits, especially John Candy’s “Ox,” blow off some steam away from the base. An adult comedy of its era could afford such casual titillation, and at least the mud-drenched, scantily-clad women fight with humor and enthusiasm against Ox’s overwhelming bulk; but it still feels overly tacked-on and perfunctory.
Stripes delivered to the evolving Murray persona new heights of mainstream success, cementing his underdog status with higher stakes, more serious on-screen opposition, and more explosive consequences than ever before.
The film seems to climax with the entertainingly choreographed march devised by Winger and Ziskey, incorporating popular song, smirking cadence, and improvised riffs apparently on Murray’s part. From that point there’s still one-third of the movie to go, and it loses some focus in becoming more action-oriented as the misfit, but now well-disciplined and self-motivated, recruits become part of a mission in Italy involving the Army’s new EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle, a.k.a. a heavily-armored Winnebago. To be more precise, self-serving Captain Stillman discovers that Winger and Ziskey have absconded with the EM-50 and orders the rest of the recruits and a healed-up Hulka to bring the vehicle back before its absence in discovered; in truth, the thieves are just joyriding to visit their girlfriends stationed in West Germany, but Stillman and company accidentally end up in then-Czechoslovakia (not an arbitrary choice, as Reitman’s family emigrated from there as refugees in 1950) and are captured. The rescue attempt, driven by Hollywood legend Elmer Bernstein’s swaggering score, requires equal parts man-to-man (or woman-to-man, as Stella and Louise prove) shooting and the unique offensive attributes of the EM-50, such as machine guns and rocket launchers. Reitman stages a worthy mix of action and comedy with genuine military vehicles and locations, but like Meatballs it suffers in the shadow of so many future successful action-comedies. Despite the abundance of gunfire and explosions, nobody appears to die on screen, playing up the film’s emphasis on rescue and camaraderie over the late Cold War-era denunciation and defeat of the Commies.
As the middle child in the loose Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray trilogy that cemented the actor’s unflappable cinematic persona, Stripes benefits from a more adult sensibility than that of Meatballs and a more seasoned group in front of and behind the camera. Murray finally faces obstacles worthy of his reckless, mischievous brand of quasi-heroism and leadership, with a fitting comedic and dramatic ally in Ramis who would carry over into the Ghostbusters films. If some of the plot and recourse to unnecessary scatological humor come across as unfortunate products of the movie’s time, the performances and contemporary comedic sensibility remain fresh and engaging.
[notification type=”star”]70/100 ~ GOOD. As the middle child in the loose Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray trilogy that cemented the actor’s on-screen persona, Stripes benefits from a more adult sensibility than that of Meatballs and a more seasoned group in front of and behind the camera.[/notification]
Confession time: Ghostbusters is one of the earliest and most influential movies of my childhood, so I can’t pretend to render my opinions with my usual veneer of faux-objectivity. From merely grooving as an adolescent to its roller-coaster-like mix of scares and sight gags to my gradual recognition of sexual innuendo and expert comic timing, I find each new viewing sheds light on the performances and style that make the film so remarkable and satisfying to revisit. Central to its success are the complementary ensemble (director Ivan Reitman dubbed co-stars Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray the head, heart, and mouth, respectively, of Ghostbusters) and intimate, improvisatory tone that ground the movie’s more fantastical, high-concept elements. Few films have become so quotable, beloved, and financially successful. Although I’m going to focus on Murray’s seminal contribution to this entertaining landmark, Ghostbusters is, even more than his previous collaborations with Reitman, a decidedly group effort.
The exemplar of the first half of Bill Murray’s film career is undoubtedly Ghostbusters.
After a scene of eerie wit set at the New York Public Library, we’re introduced to Murray as parapsychologist Dr. Peter Venkman testing two volunteer subjects with Zener cards to draw out any cases of extra-sensory perception (ESP). One subject is a fidgety young man, the other a cheerful, blonde young woman. Venkman’s attention is focused solely on her to the extent of fudging the results in her favor, and his quick-witted, horndog persona is established right off the bat. In the opening of Meatballs, Murray awakened and broadcasted his voice across Camp North Star, and he’d use that near-omnipotence to make a loser kid popular; in Stripes, Murray lost at the conventional game of life and reestablished himself as a lovable underdog against overwhelming odds; finally, in Ghostbusters, Murray begins the film trying to cheat to win time with a co-ed but eventually earns his love interest’s affections with more honest heroism. The scene also establishes Dr. Ray Stantz’s (Aykroyd) boyish enthusiasm for the paranormal (shared by the actor in real life) as he interrupts Venkman’s overtures to his subject in order to investigate a possible haunting. One gets the feeling Venkman may not even believe in this stuff, but the residual affection for Murray, by now an established comic leading man, keeps him from seeming a totally irredeemable fraud. Without losing an attractive core of droll nonchalance, his romantic transformation will still require the mythical and uncanny to push it along.
That hucksterish tension, best exemplified by client Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) dubbing him less a scientist than a “game-show host,” merges with an appropriately 1980s entrepreneurial spirit to define Venkman’s character: an ironic distance while providing a necessary if outlandish public service. Adam Bertocci, on his exquisite, exhaustive site Overthinking Ghostbusters, dives into the politics of the movie, rescuing it from charges of excessive conservatism and instead finding its truer core in anti-authoritarian populism. Such a streak has been apparent in the previous Murray-Ramis-Reitman collaborations, pitting the quick-witted Murray against the powers-that-be and eventually subverting or winning over the establishment. The Ghostbusters’ (but especially Venkman’s) earthly foe is the unctuous Environmental Protection Agency agent Walter Peck (William Atherton), who wants to shut down the seemingly fraudulent paranormal investigators for refusing to divulge the nature of their hidden waste disposal unit. Peck has come to be seen as a symbol of overreaching government oversight, but Bertocci persuasive argues that it’s his disbelieving and ignorant attitude, and adherence to the letter at the expense of the spirit of the law, that pegs him as the adversary of the professionally effective Ghostbusters. It’s Venkman’s pragmatic, political reasoning to the Mayor (David Marguilies), a more open-minded government spokesman, that loosens Peck’s grip; the on-screen Murray’s slick ability to read people has, since Meatballs, given him the edge against his institutional enemies.
Ghostbusters also provides Murray with the strongest straight men and love interest of his career up to that point, lobbing one-liners next to the grinning earnestness of Aykroyd and geeky dryness of Ramis as Dr. Egon Spengler while meeting his match in the elegant and independent Weaver. That Murray was obviously comfortable improvising alongside co-writers Aykroyd and Ramis shows through their scenes together. The Stripes duo of Murray and Ramis mutually reinforce each other once again. Blues Brothers and Murray’s Saturday Night Live co-star Aykroyd was no stranger to on-screen partnerships. In addition to bolstering the others’ comic timings, Ramis’s and Aykroyd’s characters provide the scientific foundation on which Murray’s Venkman can overlay his uniquely American commercial ambition, focusing the plot into what Reitman calls a “going-into-business story.” Ray Stantz’s at-times naïve optimism and Egon Spengler’s knowing but academic delivery temper Venkman’s overbearingly dominant wisecracking, with late recruit Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) completing the team as a handy audience surrogate once the ghostly plot thickens.
Few films have become so quotable, beloved, and financially successful.
Pete Venkman’s first scene alone with Dana Barrett in her apartment is a kind of reversal of his establishing moment, where he attempts his patently insincere charm but this time to no romantic avail. Here is someone he can’t get a handle on. He again tries feigning interest in paranormal phenomena, but Barrett know that this haunting is real and asserts her own authority as witness. His failure to properly understand the signs amidst his flirtatious patter needs to be rectified through honest investigation, which is what he tries to do from that moment on. Sigourney Weaver rose to prominence as the capably heroic victim of extraterrestrial stalking Ellen Ripley in Alien and would become a badass mother figure in its sequel Aliens; Ghostbusters on the other hand provides her a role with comic range, verbally sparring with and warming up to Bill Murray then turning one-hundred-eighty degrees and acting lustfully possessed. That scene between Venkman and Dana-possessed-by-Zuul crackles with a comic sexual tension, and the two actors play their reversed roles with aplomb; Weaver displays an uninhibited fearlessness, and Murray gets to play, for the first time, a character on the erotic defensive. Their relationship clearly deepens, even if one of the two is not quite herself, making their eventual reunion all the more satisfying.
This romantic element in Reitman’s films had always been present but had never driven the plot to this extent: lovers had fallen under Murray’s spell without much of a struggle, but now love needed to conquer hardships of supernatural proportions. Venkman is playfully sincere when briefing Barrett on his investigation’s progress outside a flowing fountain before she’s fallen under Zuul’s spell, and he even drops his mask of sarcastic detachment and shows genuine despair when he saves the world but thinks he’s lost his girl. Weaver is Murray’s most fitting and apt on-screen partner until Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, and their adult chemistry is as endearing and as crucial to the film’s success as the more affable rapport between the Ghostbusters themselves.
The exemplar of the first half of Bill Murray’s film career, before pivoting with the metaphysical romance Groundhog Day, is undoubtedly Ghostbusters. At the time, Murray seems most comfortable in this skin, surrounded by the outlandish but ably armed with a mocking tone, iconoclastic individuality, and proven comedic allies. His persona under the direction of Ivan Reitman was born as Tripper Harrison, matured into John Winger, and culminated into Pete Venkman, lovably self-serving, world-saving charlatan, and would develop from there to confront and embrace cynicism and ennui, proving Murray’s intertwined comedic and dramatic talents could adapt to the world around them.
[notification type=”star”]96/100 ~ MASTERFUL. In Ghostbusters, Bill Murray seems most comfortable in his skin, surrounded by the outlandish but ably armed with a mocking tone, iconoclastic individuality, and proven comedic allies.[/notification]