I’ve tried to slowly clue my seven-year-old daughter in to the fact that movies, for the most part, aren't real life. The people who mill about onscreen or provide the wacky voices in her cartoons are called actors. I’ve resisted showing her my own work both on and offscreen because “I get enough admiration and respect at work! I don't need it here at home!” However, I do occasionally dip my toes into the “cool dad” pool whenever a friend happens to be in the movie she’s currently watching. In this case, I went to high school with two ladies who were essentially day players in a Disney film both my wife and I hold in high regard. So, to Mary Holt Fickes and Aubrey Dollar, thanks for helping me look cool in front of my needlessly critical kid.
Heavyweights (1995) was shot in and around Asheville, North Carolina in early 1994. The cast and crew wiled away their nights at a motel in Hendersonville by splashing around in the pool, hanging out in the arcade, or simply making life miserable for their parents and handlers. This is what happens when you get a bunch of kids together and try to make a movie. I remember when hotels had video game centers. I spent many an hour meant for family bonding playing Turtles in Time. For three months, these kids (mostly boys) would be shuttled over to Camp Pinnacle and Camp Ton-A-Wondah, portrayed in the movie as weight-loss facility Camp Hope, and be expected to have wild, junk food-fueled bonfire parties, indulge in sneaky antics and pranks, and launch their buddies into the air by slamming down on the floating, inflatable monstrosity known as ‘The Blob.’ I mean, this must’ve been torture! For co-writer/first-time director Steven Brill, it was essentially a gift from the House of Mouse for a job well done.
Brill’s The Mighty Ducks (1992) was the surprise hit of the season. I mean, really. Nobody saw this little family sports film about a motley crew of pee-wee hockey players making 50 million dollars at the box office. So great was its success that it not only spawned two sequels, but Disney even named their professional hockey team after the titular bunch. What happens when an actor/writer with ambitions to direct pens a hit movie? Well, sometimes nothing, but in this case, one of the most powerful movie studios in the world ponies up a bit of cash to finance your brash little summer camp movie, hoping lightning will strike twice with another group of rude, crude youngsters whose outsider, underdog status will lead to ultimate victory and box office gold. Unfortunately for them, their faith in Brill and his now-very famous co-writer was short-lived when the pair delivered a film which was much darker and weirder than anything the family-friendly studio was expecting.
Steven Brill is not my favorite filmmaker, but my appreciation for Heavyweights has bought him a great deal of good will. As a longtime member of Adam Sandler’s inner-circle, he’s helmed several of the once-great comedic icon’s films and none of them have been one of the “good ones.” When I think of the good Adam Sandler movies, I think Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and The Wedding Singer, none of which Steven Brill directed, although he at least appeared in The Wedding Singer, so one would hope something good would rub off on him. Instead, he helmed what’s often regarded as Sandler’s first catastrophe, Little Nicky, and later The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, and Mr. Deeds, which did well at the box office but I find is only passable due to John Turturro’s memorable performance as a “sneaky sneaky” servant. He’d also direct some unremarkable non-Sandler fare like Without a Paddle and Drillbit Taylor. Having met Sandler on the set of the comedian's poorly-received first feature, Going Overboard (1989), he’d hook up with the future SNL star and the up-and-comer's frequent collaborator, Judd Apatow.
A few years later, Apatow would be producing the ahead-of-its-time The Ben Stiller Show and after the unexpected success of Ducks, would pen the screenplay with Brill for what would become the bracing, toxic comedy known as Heavyweights. It’s an intriguing notion that this film may have provided the nucleus for the slew of man-baby films Apatow churned out years later, a subgenre that effectively made him a one-man industry.
I’ve always wanted to be part of a “Let’s trash this dump” event on the last day of school before summer vacation, but as I’ve grown older, all I can think of are the poor custodians who have to clean up that mess. They should be allowed to call kid’s parents in to deal with it...messy little shitheads. Still, the opening of Heavyweights is awesomely fun as our portly, unlikely hero Gerald ‘Gerry’ Garner (Aaron Schwartz, Gossip Girl) “age 11, 141 pounds” gets his summer off to an inauspicious start by missing his bus.
Accompanied by the bouncy and very 90’s “Closer to Free” by BoDeans, Gerry makes his way home, proving he’s both out-of-shape and not particularly good at sports by being unable to throw a baseball over a fence as well as having a big appetite since he tosses some cash on a lemonade stand’s blotto and downs an entire pitcher of the yellow stuff, much to the chagrin of the pint-sized proprietors of said pop-up establishment. Even a random dog is a prick to him. Maybe he had beef jerky in his pocket. Not to worry, though. They could remake his stomach with skin from his butt. It's been done before.
He arrives home, where we meet mid-90's Jeffrey Tambor, taking a break from playing the lovably buffoonish Hank ‘Hey Now!’ Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, as Gerry’s dad Maury and, according to IMDB, Mrs. Maury Garner (Nancy Ringham) because apparently women in this film don’t get to have names. A visitor is in the living room and is played by the future breakout star of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and director of Eye of God, Tim Blake Nelson. He’s there to shill for Camp Hope. Nelson’s slightly rat-like face is put to great use when he lamely tries to get on Gerry’s good side by referring to the New York Islanders as “the team of the future.” Weirdo. Although the infomercial-style camp video is adorably cheesy, Gerry’s absolutely dead-set against it. I’ve never forgotten the odd-way in which Nelson responds when Gerry calls the campers “a bunch of fat loads.” “Now that’s not kind, Gerry.” For some reason, this has always struck me as an odd line. Of course, comedic cut to an airplane, which implies that this camp is not only far away, but must cost a pretty penny since most of the other Camp Hopers arrive at the same airport.
The ensemble of young performers is mighty impressive. None of them went on to monumental success, but the acting of the core cast in the Chipmunk Bunk is uniformly strong. Along with Schwartz, we get a couple more Mighty Ducks refugees with the return of the lovable Goldberg himself, Shaun Weiss, playing the de facto leader Josh Burnbalm, who’s super cool, already shaves, and is absolutely NOT on meth. Spinning into this movie like the proverbial knuckle puck is Roy, played by future SNL all-star Kenan Thompson, fresh off his stint in D2 after injecting some much-needed diversity into the cast. Thompson has proven to be one of the most resilient child actors of his generation, first conquering Nickelodeon on All That! and then the spin-off Kenan & Kel before joining SNL for a near 20-year stint. The rest of the cast is filled out (pun intended) by the very British egghead Nicholas (David Goldman), salami Sam (the late Joseph Wayne Miller), who fancies himself a suave motherfucker and always keeps binaca on hand, deadpan Cody (Cody Burger, Nat. Lampoon’s Xmas Vacation), nerdy Phillip (actor-turned editor Max Goldblatt), whose vegetarianism became a slight problem for the production since the contraband hamburger he was eating had to be meat-free, a difficult item to find in mid-90's North Carolina, and last, but most mysteriously of all, Mr. Simms (editor Robert Zalkind), the odd, near-mute harbinger of doom with the chronic nosebleeds and who gains the distinction of being “the fattest boy in camp,” resulting in much applause and cheering.
The kindly camp counselors are a boatload of charm, none moreso than former camper and longtime staff member Pat, played by one of the great unsung character actors, Tom McGowan, in a rare lead role. McGowan’s built a respectable career playing minor roles in two Terry Zwigoff films (Bad Santa, Ghost World), The Birdcage, Captain Ron, and a recurring role on Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond. His large frame and pleasing screen presence made him a natural choice to play the wisecracking camp leader who can’t help pranking the kids by swerving off to grab some fast food then reneging or talking with Gerry about breaking up with his girlfriend before every summer so he’ll be “free to play the field.”
The other main counselor is “bony butt chicken legs,” Tim, played by the creator of the brilliant Freaks and Geeks and future A-list director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, and unfortunately the Ghostbusters reboot). He used to be fat, but now he’s skinny, so he can more easily represent by wearing an odd Carolina Panthers cut-off shirt. Arriving a little late is the new camp nurse, played by Brill favorite Leah Lail (Little Nicky). She’s there to essentially sex-up this PG-rated affair, and as Roy says to Josh: “I just saw the new nurse and she’s very attractive,” to which Josh replies, “This pleases me.” Then he appears to mutter, “Can camp nurses write out prescriptions for meth?” which seems like an odd thing to say.
While the camp is indeed a place for upper middle-class boys to shed a pound or two, it’s generally accepted that these kids are just there to have a good time. They’re expected to eat well and exercise daily, but Josh’s announcement “Chipmunks! Download! Now!” prompts a massive display of Holocaust-level hoarding and hiding. These kids are like the MI6 of candy smugglers. Insane roll-out briefcases emerge full of endless bags of treats, all fairly non-descript, I assume because Nestle and Hersheys don’t want people to think their candy makes people fat. A surprising amount of salamis are produced. particularly from Sam. And they’ve got elaborate hiding places, not only under the floor boards, but inside the frames of the bunk beds. When and how did they set this up? Again, this film does have some weird moments. After Gerry is gently ribbed for still wearing a flight pin and being referred to as “captain,” he confides in Josh: “I snuck in some Oreos. You know...for emergencies.” Josh sarcastically replies: “That was very sneaky of you.” In the alternate takes, Gerry says: “I snuck in some meth. You know, for emergencies.” Josh sarcastically replies: “That was very sneaky-wait, what?”
The legendary comic duo of Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller show up as the camp’s beloved owners. They’re adorable and everything seems peachy, but here’s where the film takes a tragic turn. They’re no longer the owners of Camp Hope. This is news to both the kids and the counselors. Anne Meara essentially acts as the level-headed ‘straight man’ while Stiller has an absolute breakdown in front of the kids, dropping his calm, pleasant façade and shouting “Sometimes in life...things don’t work out the way you plan. And, in those situations, sometimes...you file Chapter 9 Bankruptcy-JESUS! We work our whole life! And what do we have to show?! Nothin’! Nothin’!” There’s a new camp owner, but before Stiller exits, he leaves them with the immortal line, “Never let anyone sign your checks!”
A film can live or die by its villain, but not always. Just look at the plethora of Marvel movies that succeeded despite fairly lackluster villains. Here, we get a truly formidable foe played with frightening intensity and an unapologetic nastiness by Ben Stiller. Tony Perkis, a wannabe fitness guru who is equal parts Tony Little, Susan Powter, and The Trunchbull from Matilda, is certifiably insane, but he masks it under the guise of “Perkisizing,” an infomercial concept wherein he expects to make Camp Hope, now renamed Perkis Power, into the number one weight loss facility in the country. The son of Tony Perkis Sr., “the lighting fixture king,” he announces his intention to not “give you a light. I’m gonna show you the light!” His epic monologue to the campers is full of spectacular kowtowing, forced praise, faux-inspirational mottos, and highly inappropriate comments like pointing at Roy and proclaiming he’ll one day be “a famous rap artist.” His remark about Nicholas becoming “the president of the United States” is particularly funny when Gerry retorts, “He’s from England.” For a little while, it does appear that Tony, though extremely odd and wild, might actually be helpful to the kids. His comment: “Kids, at age 12, I weighed 319 pounds. I had bad skin, low self-esteem, and no self-respect. Now, I eat success for breakfast, with skim milk.” Unfortunately, having been privately tutored his entire life, he expresses his excitement over interacting with children for the first time, which means he’s not going to be treating them with the proverbial kid gloves they need. I’ve always found his grand exit, where he tries to get the kids to high five him and only finding one lone kid to take him up on the offer highly amusing.
Ben Stiller’s famous parents certainly allowed him to gain access to the film industry, but his legitimate talent and early work with up-and-comers like Apatow, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, and Janeane Garofalo would ultimately lead him to superstar status. He’s something of an outlier within the Apatow universe. In fact, it could easily be argued that he isn’t even a part of Apatow’s stock company and did in fact break off to do his own thing. Stiller’s deceivingly small frame leads to the surprising revelation that he’s a major musclehead. He would often be found on the Heavyweights set running several miles a day and pumping iron constantly. It’s not often that you find a performer who’s hilarious but also in peak physical condition, making his startling performance as Tony all the more shocking.
Many people forget that Stiller actually appeared as a soldier in Steven Spielberg’s underrated Empire of the Sun and as a wimpy mafioso in Patrick Swayze’s hysterical Next of Kin. His breakthrough came with The Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary, a massive hit which led him to try his hand at dramatic acting in the solid Permanent Midnight. He went full-bore into comedic acting and directing with Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, while also hitting paydirt again with Meet the Parents “Oh sure, you can milk anything with nipples.” One tends to forget, however, that some of Stiller’s best work has been as a ridiculous villain. His role as White Goodman in Dodgeball is an extension of Tony Perkis, but the real deal is Hal, the nursing home orderly in Happy Gilmore. “You can trouble me for a nice warm glass of shut the hell up!” Stiller’s comedy is often pitched at a simultaneously wacky and macabre tone. Look no further then scenes like the gasoline fight in Zoolander, the blackly funny landmine death in Tropic Thunder, or the entirety of The Cable Guy. In Heavyweights, Brill and Apatow allow Stiller to indulge in an absolutely over-the-top, extreme cartoon of total malevolence.
The only other character that can hold a candle to Tony’s villainy is his number-two-man Lars, played with arrogant weirdness by Tom Hodges. Lars, sporting a vaguely European accent, is casually asked where he hails from, to which he ominously replies “Far away.” It’s a wonderful performance and Hodges makes no concessions for his behavior, including shoving kids into the lake, harassing Nurse Julie by requesting a “deep tissue massage,” shouting for Josh to “please put your fat finger down!” and having a “severely deviated septum. When I sleep at night, I make a very disturbing sound. Don’t be alarmed. I am fine.” His fairly normal snoring is followed by a sound that can best be described as the zipping-up of a gimp’s S&M outfit. He’s not irresponsible, I’ll give him that, although Nurse Julie is initially alarmed by what he describes as “The Body System.” His vegetarianism causes him to be terrified of animals, even an adorable deer who wanders along after he’s tied to a tree and smeared with honey; punishment for his mistreatment of the campers.
The battle between the kids and Tony is the highlight of the film and while the last quarter is enjoyable, the best moments revolve around Tony’s mistreatment of the paunchy campers and his frustrations with their seemingly willful refusal to lose weight and make his infomercial a reality. The anarchic, riotously funny bits fly fast and loose:
-Tony fools Roy into giving him a hug, which in turn allows him to frisk the poor kid. “My man’s packing!” he exclaims as he yanks a Pez dispenser out of Roy’s socks. I hope it wasn’t cherry-flavored. Those are fellow fat kid Vern’s favorite food.
-The creepy music he plays to wake the kids up reminds me of Farmer Vincent’s tunes in Motel Hell and Roy initially believes he’s died. Tony’s comment about “skinny winners” is memorably mocked as “skinny wieners.” In general, the announcements are pretty wild: “Tonight’s lecture. Liposuction. Option or obsession?”
-An example of Brill and Apatow’s aesthetic not meshing with Disney’s family-friendly tradition is Josh’s defiance of Tony’s gestapo-like tactics. Now known as the “Seymour Butz” scene, originally the dialogue exchange went like this. “Who’s Peter Fitz? Who’s Peter Fitz?” Josh replies: “No one’s Peter Fitz as good as yours, Uncle Tony!” Dude. That’s pretty fucked up and the re-dub is shockingly obvious. This scene also includes Josh questioning Tony’s masculinity and his eventual expulsion from camp. He returns in a fabulous scene, pretending to have received a lobotomy. “Josh was baaaad...Josh...now good. Must be...good to see my big ass again!” This is a choice bit of dialogue that I exchange with my wife on a daily basis. The real capper is delivered later when Josh is asked what it was like “on the outside,” as if the camp is indeed of the concentration variety. He informs them that he hit the Sizzler. “I closed the place.” All of this checks out, except for that bit about the meth sampler platter. Weird. Sizzler was indeed a pretty big deal in the 90’s. Just ask Joe Flaherty’s character in Happy Gilmore. “God Bless!”
-The speculation over Josh’s fate is particularly dark and highly amusing. Cody, Phillip, and Sam relate their theories. Cody says he was dropped off “all alone at a bus stop at midnight!” Sam claims Josh is living in the park “with a guy who has no legs,” while Phillip says he “pulled a knife on Tony, and now they’ve got him locked up in a juvenile detention center.” The absolute best moment arrives, though, when a pre-fame Peter Berg, the future director of Lone Survivor, Battleship, and Hancock, plays a chain-smoking cook who deadpans, “Sorry to hear about your little friend Josh. He’s uhh...well, he’s dead.” Outstanding. I could’ve used more of Berg’s weird cook.
-One of the few strong scenes without Tony’s presence is the dance sequence featuring my high school chums. Lars has an odd get-up as a DJ and Tim stomps around the party muttering “sugar-free punch, this bites!” Tim’s “blown microchip” dancing somehow inspires the rest of the gang to “catch boogie fever” and they end up having a grand old time with the Camp Magnolia girls, although it’s short-lived. After the music is abruptly shut off and the girls are sent away, Tony is introduced in an oddly-placed trombone shot and commands the counselors to “put the fruit trays away. The insects will be out soon.” My sister has always been taken aback at a throwaway moment where Sam ends up making out with one of the lovely ladies from the other camp.
-The mid-section of Heavyweights is when the film really hits its stride. There’s a sweet scene with Pat and Gerry as he pushes the go-cart-loving youngster around the now disabled track. The kids break into Tony’s cabin to discover all of their letters home have been confiscated and unsent. I do take a bit of umbrage with this. Number one, they’re still allowed to call home, although this is somewhat fixed when Maury tells Gerry that “I didn’t send you to go-cart camp!” Number two, I didn’t need Nicholas farting directly in poor Gerry’s face. The potty humor in the film isn’t too extreme, but I’m not a fan. The contraband montage appropriately, or inappropriately if you know the backstory of the song, is set to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” and it leads to Tony forcing the kids on a death march-style hike. Stiller gets a chance to hilariously throw out new age bullshit by spouting weird mantra-phrases like “Feel the chi...repulse the monkey.” The film truly goes for it here as he leaps onto a tree branch and hangs over the side of a mountain, daring the kids to join him. He’s pranked mercilessly by sitting up directly into Josh’s exposed ass, which enrages him so much that you genuinely believe he’s going to kill the kid. He ends up falling into a hunter’s trap and later imprisoned by the kids in a makeshift electrified cell. The bacchanalian party, shot in slow-motion and featuring pizza, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup, ends with the great punchline: “Never put twinkies on your pizza.”
-Tony’s spectacular inner-outer monologue with himself is a stunning moment. “How’s it goin’ little Tony? Bad. Why do you feel bad? Because, everything's falling apart and I can’t do anything about it. Its's not your fault. I know it’s not my fault, but whose fault is it if it’s not my fault? It’s their fault. That’s right, it’s their fault! IT'S YOUR FAULT!!” The progressive amping up and growing ferocity of the scene is downright scary.
-The film reaches its natural conclusion during the Parents Day sequence. The unsuspecting moms and dads are treated to an awesomely graphic video called “Camp Hope or Camp Hell,” where they see Tony’s abuse firsthand and even witness the kids killing and eating a rat. Pat: “I thought I’d spice it up.” This twist doesn’t actually add up and appears to be missing a scene. The amount of deleted material from Heavyweights is somewhat legendary, including a scene where the boys rehearse a Cats production number in clingy cat costumes. Earlier, Kenny the cameraman (Allen Covert, the homeless guy in Happy Gilmore) refused to give the footage to Tim because he wanted too much money. Now, inexplicably, they get it and Kenny’s part of their crew now. It’s fairly slapdash.
Tony escapes after tempting Nicholas with a phony Hershey’s kiss which he refuses to throw over, “but it would smoosh...that wouldn’t be good.” He applauds the video from his perch above the rest of the campers and parents, looking worse-for-wear and shouting: “That was wonderful. Woooo!!! So entertaining. The cinematography, the editing techniques. Though I must say, the villain, was a bit... over the top.” This is clearly a meta-reference to his own work in the film. He literally flips down to the floor and lands with a thud, uttering a delayed “ouch.” He first threatens Nicholas “Why, you little British butterball! I oughta teach you what it's like to be an American!”, then goes on the attack against Gerry, whom he’s had an antagonistic relationship with since the beginning. He appears to have seen something of himself in Gerry and is particularly angry that he’s been unable to change the NY Islanders fan. He smashes glasses on the ground and walks over them while screeching at the young lad: “I’m too strong! I’m too motivated! And you’re too weak, Gerald Garner! Age 11, weight 141 pounds!” Jeffrey Tambor gives him a solid sock in the gut, which is great and very appropriate.
Here’s where the film possibly goes too far. In a lighter film, that punch would’ve been the end of Tony. Instead, Tony judo chops Maury in the back, a pretty harsh move, then back flips until he slams into a wall. This is where the theatrical cut’s scene ends. However, in the extended version, Tony grabs the bow and arrow which can still be seen in the final cut and threatens to shoot members of the crowd. It’s incredibly dark and overtly mean. No wonder Judd Apatow later claimed Disney set up very few press junkets for the film and pretty much dumped it upon completion.
Stiller plays a dual role as his own father, while Stiller’s real mom and dad appear earlier in the film, and it’s an amusing little gravelly-voiced character. His insistence on being called “papa” is quite funny. By all accounts, the film could end right here. There could be a triumphant Gerry voiceover about the greatest summer ever and boom. Credits. Apparently, the original cut included voiceovers from several of the campers, perhaps aping Scorsese’s Casino. This tactic was deemed distracting. Instead of concluding, we get the return of the stereotypical asshole rivals, Camp MVP.
This subplot, including a fairly good slapstick-style softball game, could’ve been presented in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek manner since this cliché is tired beyond belief, but it’s played completely straight. There’s about 15 minutes left in the runtime and it’s spent at the faintly racist-sounding “Apache Relay.” While the jocks do well at the physical fitness activities, they’re also morons who think da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a picture of Cher, which is actually pretty funny. Gerry triumphs by using a (probably illegal) propulsion mechanism on his go-cart and there’s your average freeze-frame conclusion. Don’t get me wrong. It’s satisfying to see the underdogs triumph and the various adults from Camp Hope playing the historical figures, including Lars doing a dead-on Andy Warhol. But it’s predictable.
Financially unsuccessful, Heavyweights gained its cult following through home video by being a bit grimmer and more daring than your average young adult fare. Though formulaic, its dynamic characters and wildly irreverent humor make it one of the more underrated children’s films in the Disney canon.