Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Meatballs — a very loosely associated series of stories centering on summer camps and the ribald and troublemaking antics of the camps’ young counselors. The franchise spans four theatrical films from 1979 to 1992.
The Installment: Meatballs Part II (1984)
So long Camp North Star, and so long Tripper, we hardly knew ye. Hello, Camp Sasquatch. Our location has changed but things remain much the same. Once again buses full of counselors and campers arrive at camp to set things in motion for a summer of shenanigans. Our new central character is a bad boy named Flash (John Mengatti), who was given a choice by the police between becoming a CIT or going to reform school — Flash chose Camp Sasquatch. At first Flash is resistant to camp ways, but finds that Sasquatch has a lot to offer, namely a cute girl, Cheryl (Escape to Witch Mountain‘s Kim Richards all growed up). Meanwhile, Sasquatch’s director, Coach Giddy (Richard Mulligan), discovers that the camp is in danger of losing access to their lake because of the mechanizations of Col. Hershey (Hamilton Camp), who runs Camp Patton, a neighboring military summer camp. Giddy and Hershey agree to a winner-takes-all boxing match. Giddy of course decides to enlist the skills of Flash. What else… oh yeah, an extra-terrestrial named Meathead is sent to the camp by his alien/Jewish parents. Meathead gets stoned and does some magic and Pee Wee Herman drives a bus. The end.
Meatballs 2 is a classic case of death-by-comparison. If this had simply been called Camp Sasquatch, it would probably have a better legacy (of course, it probably would have made significantly less money too). If you’re a little boy, this is a solidly silly film. It lacks the more adult-friendly counter-culture vibe of the original film, but narratively it also improves upon that film’s structural deficiencies. Camp Patton is a far better foe than Camp Mohawk, because it is actually presented as a foe. It has a face: Col. Hershey. And Meatballs 2 has stakes, because Hershey wants to ruin Sasquatch. In fact, the whole script seems a reaction to Meatballs‘ script. Flash needs to change and prove himself to be worthy of Cheryl. Flash also learns something from his experience with the young campers; they influence him, not just the other way around. And Camp Patton actively fucks with Sasquatch throughout the film, so the end victory has meaning and the film closes with a greater sense of completion.
While this is undeniably a less funny film than Meatballs, it is still fairly amusing — especially if viewed as a kids’ film. Meatballs 2 has significantly more schtick than we had before, now with a lot of farce and dorky running gags. Whereas Meatballs presented a somewhat plausible assortment of campers, now we get something more akin to a Police Academy motley crew. We have a set of identical twins, we have a kid who sells smuggled-in candy from his suitcase, we have a kid with a souped-up wheelchair, we have a punch drunk Rocky-esque moron, a disgusting French chef, and Camp Patton’s boxing champion is named Mad Dog and is kept in a cage and fed raw meat. It’s that kind of film. Some of the running bits are fun, like the continuously foiled coupling of the two head counselors, Jamie (Archie Hahn) and buxom Fanny (Misty Rowe). Their gags are cheesy, but they work in that vein, with Jamie hopelessly in lust with Fanny — at one point exclaiming, “Fanny please, I love them! I mean you!” The them referring to her boobs. So, funny in that sort of way, if you find such things funny. And what can I say, I usually do. There is also a great vaudeville-esque routine when two parents drop the identical twin boys off at the buses, and repeatedly get the boys’ names confused, and then the boys get their parents confused. And the dialogue is not as massive a step down as one might assume. We still get some great exchanges, like when a mother played by Elayne Boosler tells her daughter, “I don’t want you smoking pot.” When the daughter says she’ll just be experimenting, the mother replies, “Well don’t pay for it.” That’s funny.
Richard Mulligan is tonally appropriate for such a silly movie, allowing him to mug and ham it up to his heart’s content as Coach Giddy. But probably the most consistently winning performances come from the relationship between Hershey and his side-kick Lt. Foxglove (John Larroquette). On just a purely visual level the two are humorous, with 6’4 Larroquette towering over his diminutive Napoleonic commander. Though a little dated in its political correctness, Hershey and Foxglove have a great Mel Brooksian running bit where Foxglove keeps lisping around Hershey. What makes it funny is that Foxglove doesn’t seem embarrassed by or particularly concerned with hiding his homosexuality from Hershey, but keeps doing so because Hershey is so easily fooled. “Did I hear a lisp?” “Impossible sir, we’re alone.” That made me laugh out loud. Also, Camp Patton is a fun idea. I find rooting against rich kids a little tiresome if that is the only reason a movie gives me to dislike them. I mean, what is so honorable about not being rich? I’m not rich. But I sure as hell wish I was. So there is always something a little ugly – hypocritical and envy-based – about lazily framed anti-privilege comedy (for me at least). Camp Sasquatch is about having fun. Camp Patton is about destroying fun. More so, Camp Patton is about preventing the kind of childhood worry-free setting that summer camp is supposed to be. Hershey even has a plaque above his doorway that reads “Abandon childhood all ye who enter here.” As a kids’ film, this is about what you want from your villains. Camp Patton is anti-childhood.
I’m always happy to see Donald Gibb, who plays Camp Patton’s boxing ringer, Mad Dog.
Not really a benefit to the film, but I also liked that the horror film we see our campers watching is Shock Waves, also directed by Ken Wiederhorn.
What Doesn’t Work:
Its pleasant comedy aside, Meatballs 2 was doomed from the start — as far a sequels go. In many ways Meatballs 2 is a better movie than Meatballs. Unfortunately these are all unimportant ways. Because Meatballs 2 doesn’t have Bill Murray. Few movies demonstrate the importance of casting better than Meatballs. Murray made that film; he saved that film. A sequel without Murray playing Tripper was never going to be very exciting. But there are plenty of franchises that bounced back from losing a key player. Murray may be one-in-a-million, but it’s not like there aren’t other funny actors out there. And Meatballs had the benefit of being an ensemble comedy. Rudy had the most developed character arc in the original film, and we knew he was coming back to Camp North Star the following summer. It’s 1984. Rudy is probably a CIT by now. Morty is presumably still camp director. We liked North Star. Why switch to a whole new camp with zero connection to the first film? I wouldn’t be surprised if this script began life simply as a Meatballs rip-off until someone had the clever idea of franchising it. If not, I really don’t see the logic behind its creative choices.
Meatballs 2 is uncomfortably caught between two worlds: Is it a silly, innocent comedy for kids? Or a naughty sex comedy for teens and college kids? A lot of 80’s comedies have this sort of vibe (which is what made the 80’s an amazing time to be a kid, if you didn’t have overly protective parents), but Meatballs 2‘s situation is more acutely a tonal flaw. Because it isn’t a kids movie. Kids were surely the only people who actually liked the film, but that’s where the fuck-up was. The film was originally intended to be one of many post-Porky’s R-rated sex-romps, but somewhere along the line it was decided that the film needed a PG rating. So all the nudity and sex was removed from the film (these omissions can be read in detail here). This left Meatballs 2 feeling odd and confused, because all the vestiges of this former raunchy film are left behind. Cheryl’s entire subplot in the film is centered on the fact that she’s never seen a penis. Her friends at camp are determined to make sure she does see a penis. And her subplot climaxes when, during the film’s climactic boxing match, Flash gets de-pantsed and Cheryl sees his johnson. Then, in Flash and Cheryl’s final scene, the virginal Cheryl sexily promises to fuck Flash if he comes to visit her back in the real world. Let’s keep in mind that the equivalent scene in Meatballs involved the one and only vulnerable moment between Tripper and Roxanne, where Tripper asks Roxanne to move in with him.
To clarify, the problem isn’t that all these sex and drugs references are inappropriate for kids. This was the 80’s man. Little boys love this shit. The problem is that ostensibly this is a movie for the zany R-rated crowd, but with all the things that would make it R-rated deleted. It feels half-there, neutered. And worse, perplexing. Until I learned that the film had once been much naughtier, I just kept thinking, “Who the hell was this film aimed at?” And nothing exemplifies this confusion more than — Meathead the motherfucking alien. I wish I could have been a fly on the writer’s room wall when someone suggested, “Hey, people liked E.T., let’s toss an alien in there! Oh, and let’s make him Jewish! Like with super Jewy parents!” Then someone else said, “That’s hilarious!” instead of, “What the goddamn hell are you fucking talking about?” Is Meathead meant to be absurdist, or parody, or actually funny? It is hard to say. If he is meant to be absurdist, I can imagine such a gag working in a Harold and Kumar movie. And Paul is basically a riff on the same core concept. But aside from smoking pot with Flash in one scene, Meathead feels like a sincere attempt at kids entertainment (with only the younger campers knowing of Meathead’s existence for most of the film). None of the Meathead plot beats feel like they’re meant to be meta or satirical. In fact, when Meathead uses his powers to help Flash win the boxing match I was reminded of a 60’s Disney movie, like The Absent-Minded Professor. It’s just… so… why is there an alien in this movie?!?!? That kind of shit is reserved for a franchise well into its sequels — like, Meatballs VI: Extra-Terrestriballs. This is Meatballs 2 and the film ends in fucking outer space. Think about that for a second.
Bottom line — the film is just too stupid and silly to appeal to anyone other than little boys, which isn’t what this franchise is supposed to be doing. And most parents would never let their little boys see this film if they knew what it contained.
Also, WHY IS THERE A GODDAMN ALIEN IN THIS MOVIE?!?!
Breasts Exposed: 0 (unless you have access to the mountains of deleted scenes)
Most Shameless T&A: Fanny’s aerobics class.
Mother: Boys only want one thing.
Daughter: What’s wrong with that?
Mother: They never want it when you want it.
Best Prank: Coach Giddy tricks Col. Hershey into accepting the winner-takes-all boxing match by dressing one of the bus drivers, Albert (Paul Reubens), as a Hare Krishna and claiming that he may be selling Camp Sasquatch to – gasp! – dirty hippies.
Best Stickin’ It To The Man/Jerks Moment: I guess nothing tops cheating in a boxing match by receiving special telekinetic help from an alien. Take that Camp Patton!
Most Awkward Moment of Sexuality: The incessant and creepy use of the word “pinky” to mean penis.
Should There Be a Sequel: Yeah, let’s follow Meathead and his family into space. We can get all sorts of Jewish-related satire. But you know, in space. Space bagels! Ha ha ha!
Up Next: Meatballs III: Summer Job