Why Watching ‘Meatballs’ Will Help You Have a Happier, Saner Summer
Part of what makes 'Meatballs' so great is that it’s almost impossible to explain what it’s about. In fact, director Ivan Reitman said when Bill Murray took one look at the script, he quickly dropped it into the nearest trashcan. Tweet
'Meatballs' is indisputably the greatest summer-camp movie ever made, and it’s over 40 years old.
When Bill Murray showed up on the set, he took one look at the script and quickly dropped it into the nearest trashcan.
Take a deep breath. Treat the news like a bad script. Be more like Bill Murray and his camp of lovable misfits.
The message? “It just doesn’t matter!” Have we ever needed a message like that more than in 2021?
Meatballs is indisputably the greatest summer-camp movie ever made, and it’s over 40 years old.
I know there are some who might disagree with me, but they would be wrong. “What about Wet Hot American Summer?” they’ll protest. “That was way funnier than Meatballs.” I’m sorry, no, your logic is flawed. I would never deny that Wet Hot American Summer is probably one of the funniest movies ever made. But it’s a satire of summer camp movies. It wouldn’t exist without movies like Meatballs. That’s like telling Michael Myers that Freddie Krueger is your favorite horror villain.
Every other summer-camp movie is a pale imitation. And don’t get me wrong, there have been some good ones. Indian Summer (1993), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Troop Beverly Hills (1989), and even, God help us, Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) — these all had some memorable moments. But they don’t stick to your ribs like Meatballs. They don’t even come close to Bill Murray in a Hawaiian shirt asking a young camper, “Is that a bra you’re wearing, or are you expecting an assassination attempt?”
The movie’s premise, if you need reminding, is pretty simple: It’s just another wild summer at Camp North Star, where head counselor Tripper (played by Bill Murray) and a ragtag group of counselors and campers play pranks on each other, almost hook up, and take on the rich and snobby summer camp across the lake, the utterly unlikeable Camp Mohawk.
Part of what makes Meatballs so great is that it’s almost impossible to explain what it’s about. Because honestly, it’s not really “about” anything. The plot is almost nonexistent. In fact, director Ivan Reitman—who would go on to direct comedy classics like Ghostbusters and Stripes—once recalled that Bill Murray showed up on the set of Meatballs, took one look at the script and quickly dropped it into the nearest trashcan.
In that way, Meatballs is exactly like life, or at least life at a summer camp. There is no script. There is no structured three-act story with a perfect ending. It’s a hot mess of half-remembered snippets, tales that are likely exaggerated, and a whole lot of stupid antics in-between that go nowhere.
Yes, that’s right, I cried at Meatballs.
I watched the movie again with my son, who’s going to camp for the very first time this summer, and it made me tear up. Yes, that’s right, I cried at Meatballs. But it wasn’t over nostalgia, or because I was yearning for the summer camps of my youth, where copping a feel and getting a nice tan were considered accomplishments.
What made me unexpectedly weepy was that speech. You know the one — the iconic pep-talk that Bill Murray gives to his campers before they set out to face Camp Mohawk in a series of athletic competitions they’ll likely lose. Camp North Star is a kennel packed full of underdogs.
“Even if we win,” Murray tells the kids, “even if we play so far over our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days, even if God in Heaven above comes down and points His hand at our side of the field, even if every man, woman, and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn’t matter. Because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk ’cause they’ve got all the money! It just doesn’t matter if we win or we lose.”
That’s when the kids start chanting and clapping along, “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!”
I couldn’t help myself. Even though my son looked at me like I was crazy, I pumped my fist in the air triumphantly. “It just doesn’t matter,” I yelled. “It just doesn’t matter!”
Have we ever needed a message like that more than in 2021? We’ve become a society of people who take everything waaaaay too seriously, convinced that being right in every situation, every political argument or social media disagreement or family argument is the most important thing in the world. Everybody wants to be the center of attention, to have all eyes on them, to have the last word, and to make sure that every last person on the planet agrees with them on every conceivable topic.
But as Bill Murray reminds us, it just doesn’t matter. You don’t need to win every battle. Because you know what? You’re probably not going to. You’re never going to get everyone to share your opinions or beliefs or see your side of an argument. Your family and friends and especially strangers on the internet will never admit that you’re the smartest man who ever lived. So why do we care so much?
I guess that’s why the movie really holds up after all these years. It’s not just about summer-camp-the-place, but summer-camp-the-state-of-mind. Put down the phone, stop Googling for more evidence that you’re right, and take a deep breath. Be more like Bill Murray and his camp of lovable misfits. Accept that it just doesn’t matter, and try to have a little fun.
Let this be the summer of “it just doesn’t matter.” Trust me, you’ll be much happier that way.