Friday, April 6, 2007

Cult Classic Corner: Heavyweights

Director: Steven Brill Starring: Aaron Schwartz, Tom McGowen, Ben Stiller, Keenan Thompson, Tom Hodges, Leah Lail, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Jeffrey Tambor
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: PG
Release Date: 1995

***1/2 (out of ****)

As a kid I never really liked camp. To me it was like summer school. Really, if you think about it it's essentially the same thing except you're wearing shorts. I always thought camp was actually worse because at least school didn't pretend to be fun. Maybe the problem was that I never went to a sleep away camp or never went to camp with anyone other than who I went to school with. Or that I had terrible counselors. Or that I was just a miserable kid who just couldn't have fun anywhere. Maybe it's because I wasn't fat. If I was I'm sure I would have had a great time at camp if it meant I got to attend one that was anything like "Camp Hope" in the 1995 Disney cult comedy classic Heavyweights. I doubt a camp this fun could ever exist anywhere but in the movies but for an hour and a half it's fun imagining that it does.

Released in 1995 and directed by Steven Brill this family film was billed as being from "the creator of The Mighty Ducks." Needless to say that tagline didn't exactly send moviegoers rushing to the multiplex. Critics weren't any kinder and the film quickly fell off the radar. Shame on them. In the 12 years since its release the movie slowly started to find new life on video and DVD and picked up a cult audience that could recite all the lines of the film by heart. This is what I love most about cult films. If for some reason a real quality film fails to make any money, is bashed by just about every critic and completely falls through the cracks, the fans are right there to save it. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, the filmmakers made a family comedy that everyone of all different ages can enjoy and has held up years later upon repeated viewings. How many other "family films" can claim that? Watching it now you can see how it's subversive, dry humor created a template for future comedies like Old School and even more directly Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. I can't imagine anyone seeing this and not at least enjoying It for what it is. I couldn't wait until it was over so I could watch it again.

Heavyweights tells the story of young Gerry Gardner ( a really likable Aaron Schwartz) who when school is let out for the summer is ordered by his parents to attend a boys weight loss camp known as "Camp Hope." I should break here and let you know that Gerry's dad is played by Jeffrey Tambor, who looks EXACTLY like Dr. Phil McGraw in this movie. Even more so than usual. A camp representative (Tim Blake Nelson in a small role) comes to the house and shows the family an uplifting video featuring the camp's founders, the Bushkins (played by Ben Stiller's parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) and overweight counselor Pat (Tom McGowen) which actually makes the camp look fun and somewhat convinces Gerry things may not be as bad as they seem. When he arrives there they're actually not, as Gerry becomes friends with Roy (Keenan Thompson) and the kids come up with funny, clever ways to sneak junk food into the camp. Everything's about to change with the arrival of Tony Perkus (Ben Stiller), a compulsive, insane fitness guru who just bought the camp from the Bushkins and is determined to turn his new exercise regime for "Camp Hope" into the number one weight loss infomercial in the country.

The kids are given ridiculous "Perkus Power" shirts, have their go-carts destroyed, are forced to go on 20 mile hikes, subjected to weigh-ins, humiliated in front of girls at a camp dance and are basically emotionally and physically tortured by the most mentally unstable person you'll ever see at a summer camp. He also brings in an evil new counselor, Lars (Tom Hodges) who I can't even do justice describing here. The hysterical performance of Hodges is reason enough alone to see this movie, but believe me there are plenty others. The real hero of the film ends up being McGowen's Pat, the 18-year veteran counselor who must learn to stand up for himself, the kids and overcome his fear of talking to the pretty camp nurse, Julie (Leah Lail).

What's so special about the film is how it manages to accomplish it's goal of being a heart warming and uplifting picture for kids, while at the same time sliding in some really clever humor for teens and adults, all the while maintaining it's clean PG rating. That's impressive. Just as impressive is that the movie never takes itself or its message too seriously, yet never makes fun of the kids or being fat. I was surprised how well written the picture was, but shouldn't have been when I saw one of the names on the credits. The movie was co-written by Judd Apatow, the comic mastermind behind the 40- Year-Old Virgin as well as television's short-lived but brilliant Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.

If they really were trying to make a Disney family comedy somebody forgot to send Ben Stiller the memo. There were many times during this when I thought there was no way this guy could have been following the script and the movie's all the better for it. It seemed like the entire performance was improvised. It's like he walked in from the set of another film and decided to just do his own thing. As Tony Perkis, clad in a spandex body suit, his head insanely disproportionate to the rest of his body, he gives the funniest, most darkly comic performance of his career. The finale of the film is like a Stiller free for all (involving back flips and broken glass) the likes of which you've never seen before. Now that he's always saddled with playing wimps or losers we forget how effective and funny he can really be in a villainous role. He makes this movie I'll go out on a limb here and say his performance the primary reason the movie has found new life on DVD.

It's been 12 long years, but the legacy of Heavyweights lives on. While none of the actors in the film (aside from Stiller) are huge names some went on to enjoy moderate success. Keenan Thompson went on to star in Good Burger and became a regular on Saturday Night Live. Tom McGowen you'll recognize as one of those character actors who seems to have been in just about every show on television (Frasier and Curb Your Enthusiasm to name a couple). Tim Blake Nelson went on to direct (2001's O) and star (2000's O' Brother Where Art Thou?) in feature films . There's even a blink and you'll miss him cameo from Peter Berg as the camp cook. The funniest (or maybe creepiest considering this is a Disney film) piece of information I found out while surfing the internet movie database was that the young girl that made the rotund campers' jaws drop at the dance went on to become a Playboy model.

Stiller has often stated his appreciation for the Perkis character and even modeled his performance as White Goodman in Dodgeball after it. He's said in interviews that he's interested in reprising the role for a sequel and I really hope that comes to fruition. Reuniting the original cast is easy and it shouldn't be too difficult for Disney to get behind it after all the success Stiller and Apatow have enjoyed in the years since the film's release. Heavyweights is one of those rare family films that really is for the entire family and its influence can still be felt in today's comedy landscape. Its cult classic status is well deserved.

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