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 4 (1992)
It is the beginning of another season for Lakeside – an adult-oriented summer camp, or something? – and this year’s turnout of campers is not so hot. Not so hot numbers-wise; physically they are by and large busty and super attractive. Lakeside’s owner, Neil (Jack Nance), is desperate to boost the popularity of the camp, so he rehires their former hotshot water ski instructor Ricky Wade (Corey Feldman). This causes conflict with Neil’s daughter Kelly (Deborah Tucker) who used to date Ricky. But Lakeside needs Ricky if they hope to be victorious in their winner-takes-all competition with Twin Oaks, the more popular neighboring resort that wants Lakeside’s land. Garish early-90’s fashion happens. Boobs pop out frequently. And Ricky executes an impressively terrible dance number.
By now there should be no lingering doubts that the latter phase of the Meatballs franchise is aimed squarely at (pre-Internet) adolescent boys starving for naked bosoms. In this titillating realm, Meatballs 4 delivers with gusto. Where Meatballs 3 kinda cheated its way through its boob count, cramming them all into montages in the first third of the movie and using extras instead of actual characters, Meatballs 4‘s writer-directer Bob Logan seems to have a very specific boobgenda. All of the Lakeside actresses, save for leading lady Deborah Tucker, get naked. Most of them get naked repeatedly. And the nudity never lets up. I like to envision Logan as a character from the Ed Wood-era, chomping on a cigar and espousing wisdom to a younger filmmaker, saying, “Kid, you gotta have a tit pop out in every reel.” I’m not saying this makes the movie good, mind you. But every movie should be judged by its ambitions. And anyone paying money to see an R-rated Meatballs 4 surely dropped their hard earned cash for some dumb jokes and titties. Just as a crappy horror movie can panderingly boost its watchability by going for broke when it comes to gore and kills, a shitty T&A sex comedy is well served to get shameless — or maybe I should say topless.
I theorized that Meatballs 2 and 3 weren’t originally conceived as Meatballs sequels. With this film there is no reason to theorize. Bob Logan originally wrote this film to be titled Happy Campers. But I’ll at least say that Meatballs 4 fits in, conceptually. No aliens or angels (though based on how batshit this franchise was becoming, that’s a little disappointing in a way). It takes place at a camp, there is a “good” camp and an “evil” camp, with a camp director worried about losing his “good” camp, and a climactic competition between the “good” camp and the “evil” camp. Plus, and maybe most importantly, there is a Tripper-esque lead, who takes an unfortunate loser under his wing and helps turn the loser into a winner.
Jack Nance is a uniquely bizarre actor (surely why David Lynch liked him so much), and he is entirely wasted on this film. But homie had to pay his bills, so it is nice to have him around. He helps make the segments of the film between boobs flopping out more watchable. Also, even though it is a flagrant theft of Rodney Dangerfield’s ‘Triple Lindy’ from Back to School, the subplot of Neil’s daredevil water skiing super-move, the ‘Triple Hinge’ – which of course climaxes with old-man Neil pulling the move off to win the competition – works in a silly way.
Speaking of working in a silly way: Ricky’s introduction is so over-the-top stupid I have to commend Logan to an extent. Ricky arrives, with all the campers and counselors watching, by jumping out of an airplane and parachuting down into the lake while wearing a water-ski and a blaring boom box (which presumably was destroyed when he landed in the water). And I’m a little remiss to admit it, but the out-of-no-where meta joke that closes the film made me laugh. It starts off as another flagrant theft from a better film (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), with Ricky breaking the fourth wall to tell us to go home or turn off our VCR. This didn’t make me laugh. But when Monica tells Ricky, “Some movie star you are,” and stomps off, Ricky, offended, looks into the camera and marvels, “I was in Goonies.” I laughed.
What Doesn’t Work:
While Meatballs 4 actively bothered me far less than Meatballs 3 did, that is a pretty small victory considering that it has nothing to do with 4 being a better film than 3, and everything to do with 4 being a wispy nothing of a motion picture that merely lulled me into a state of benign indifference with its pageantry of boobage. And this actually makes it a perfect franchise-closing comparison to the original Meatballs. The first film was a structural shit-show with almost no story, no conflict, and no momentum. But it was written by Harold Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman in their primes, and starred Bill Murray (who had no prime; he is eternal). Meatballs 4 has a story and it has conflict, which gives it momentum. But it was written and directed by Bob Logan and it stars 21-year-old Corey Feldman. Logan – whose other most notable film is the Leslie Nielsen-starring Exorcist parody Repossessed – is no Ramis/Reitman. And as much as I adore Feldman’s child-actor work, adult Feldman’s contrast to Bill Murray makes Bob Logan seem like a Harold Ramis clone. On paper Meatballs 4 could appear superior to Meatballs. This of course is not even close to being the case. To all the screenwriters out there currently obsessing over Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, watch Meatballs and Meatballs 4 back-to-back and see if you still think following the “rules” of film storytelling is as important as casting, editing, and atmosphere.
I like Corey Feldman. Well, rather, I liked him during the golden age of his career. He was an excellent child actor and even managed to hang in there briefly into early adulthood, as any fan of 1989’s The ‘Burbs can tell you. Then the 90’s weren’t so kind. He did this movie, and oddly enough, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever, back-to-back, and his career was effectively over until reality TV ironically rediscovered him in the 00’s. As tragically happens with so many child stars, it wasn’t that Feldman lost his ability to act, so much as he aged out of what attributes had made him appealing as a kid. And it isn’t just that he turned out a little goofy-looking. Cause let’s be realistic — Bill Murray is goofy-looking. But Feldman’s child charm didn’t transition into adult charm. Certainly not for a role like Ricky Wade. Feldman can capably deliver all his lines; his timing is solid. But Ricky Wade is cool. Bill Murray sold the presentation of Tripper being cool so hard that you wished you could be Rudy, just so you could have a mentor like Tripper. Feldman’s Ricky is just a hollow archetype. And it’s not really Feldman’s fault. He never should have been cast as the character. Feldman is clearly a dork. This was still during his Michael Jackson obsession phase (for younger readers unfamiliar with Feldman, that was totally a phase he had; just watch Dream a Little Dream and get ready to cringe), when he was under the impression he had dope, sexy dance moves. And we see some his dope moves in Meatballs 4. I honestly can’t tell if his dance is a failed attempt at coolness, or intentionally awful. But Feldman’s dorkiness makes the microcosm of Lakeside seem sort of sad, as opposed to the groovy party central it is meant to be, because everyone else thinks Ricky is so hilarious and awesome. Ricky is probably what the “Tripper” of a real summer camp is like. And that’s not what you want your cool movie hero to be. Reality is always disappointing in these situations.
I do not understand what the fuck Lakeside is. And I’m from Minnesota, which statistically out-paces the rest of the country in per capita recreational water-sport activity by quite a bit. Lakeside seems like it is a summer camp. The “campers” arrive on a bus, just like in Meatballs and Meatballs 2. But these campers are all in their twenties. They’re the same age as the counselors. So it’s a resort, or something? A resort where all the patrons arrive at the same time on an old school bus and are forced to do scheduled activities? I have no idea. That seems like an awful resort to me. And further confusing the issue, within 24-hours from their arrival at the camp the campers are essentially forced into training for Lakeside’s competition with Twin Oaks. So… is that the point of the camp? They advertise that you’ll be taught how to water ski and then take part in a big competition? Or… I don’t get it. I’m starting to suspect this movie wasn’t very well thought out. Because I’m not at all surprised Lakeside has such poor attendance if that is their gimmick. Sounds stressful for a summer camp.
I also don’t understand our villains, Twin Oaks. As in the original Meatballs, Twin Oaks is the wealthy camp. It is run by haughty Monica Shavetts (played finely by genre-cinema stalwart Sarah Douglas), who seems like an ordinary ruthless businesswoman. But her two henchman are cartoony Italian mobster types. Are we supposed to assume she has some ties to organized crime? Or did Logan just think having two New Yorky cliches – clad in suits – hanging around a wilderness resort would be funny? What are these two guys even doing working at a camp? Also, there are two competitions between Lakeside and Twin Oaks. The mid-movie competition is a scheduled annual event, one that we learn Lakeside always loses. Now, knowing that the film climaxes in another competition, one than Neil challenges Monica Shavetts to, who would you assume would win the mid-movie competition? Twin Oaks, right? Wrong. Lakeside triumphs, winning their first competition against Twin Oaks in years. Huh? So our underdogs go into the final competition as the alpha dogs? Even Meatballs got that bit right, and North Star’s rivalry with Mohawk had absolutely no relevance to the overall story.
Deborah Tucker isn’t an amazing actress by any means, but I still felt bad for her being saddled with the character of Kelly Peterson. All Kelly does the whole movie is whine to Neil about Ricky, or to Ricky about Ricky. And the big romantic conversation that Ricky and Kelly finally have is impressively atrocious. If I were Feldman and Tucker I would have tried to destroy the footage from that day of shooting.
Brad Grunberg (brother of JJ Abrams regular Greg Grunberg), or as he’s credited in this film, “Johnny Cocktails,” also has a thankless task — playing Ricky’s pet-project-in-coolness Victor Thigpen, who is fat and constantly fucking things up and whimpering about it. I’m not sure how old Victor is supposed to be. Grunberg (or Cocktails) seems like he’s doing an impression of Stephen Furst in Animal House the whole film, which makes the character seem like he’s supposed to be a dweeby teenager. But at least Grunberg has some sliver of charm to bring to the part.
Breasts Exposed: 15
Most Shameless T&A: Five minutes into the movie, right after all the campers arrive, the girls – for some reason – take their tops off while unpacking in their cabin.
Best Line: After saying hello to busty Jennifer (Paige French), Ricky then turns his attention to saying hello to her breasts.
Ricky: Hey, Bill, hey Ted. Any excellent adventures lately?
Best Prank: When Ricky and Neil fake a fire drill. Most of the girls run out of their cabins naked (naturally; they seem to be mostly naked when alone in their cabins anyway). Then Neil, over the PA, tells the boys to grab buckets of water and soak the ladies. Then tells the boys to pick the girls up in the air. Neil is lucky his campers are apparently all idiots, cause this prank seems like a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen.
Best Stickin’ It To The Man/Jerks Moment: When Ricky fires his rival Kyle (Bentley Mitchum).
Most Awkward Moment of Sexuality: Corey Feldman.
Should There Be a Sequel: No.
Meatballs is easily the worst franchise I’ve tackled in this column. And it has little to do with the quality of the individual installments (though it is probably the worst by those standards too). But the franchise fails on the most basic function of being a franchise — safety. The definition of a franchise is broader than that, of course, but the idea of a franchise is meant to instill consumers with a feeling of safety, safety in knowing what to expect. If McDonald’s franchises functioned like Meatballs, you would know you were getting cheaply produced fast food, but you wouldn’t know if it would be Mexican or burgers or Chinese, or even if the layout would be the same. You know when you stop at a fast food chain, a chain that normally has a drive-thru, only to discover it doesn’t have a drive-thru? That is the Meatballs franchise. The American Pie franchise got pretty jinky as it went on, but at least they branched it off with something of a disclaimer, adopting the American Pie Presents banner. And even then Eugene Levy stuck around for every installment. The title Meatballs doesn’t imply anything, other than you can expect low-brow comedy. But the nature of that low-brow comedy isn’t consistent. Let’s imagine for a moment that these sequels were planned by a single governing force – even a governing force only interested in making money – what moron would assume that fans of Reitman and Ramis’ semi-naturalistic slice-of-life comedy would want to see a wacky story about a boy haunted by a magical dead pornstar? No one. The Meatballs title was for hire, the same way the National Lampoon brand became for hire. But that made sense. That branding does imply something. But just imagine if National Lampoon’s Senior Trip (starring Jeremy Renner!) was titled Animal House II: Senior Trip, or there had been a National Lampoon’s Vacation II that hadn’t featured any of the characters from the first film, and had been about teens on spring break searching for buried treasure.
This franchise can’t even be properly “assessed” in the typical way.
Franchise ranked from best to worst:
Meatballs 2 | Meatballs 3
Up Next: Alien.