As Ye Sow
I caught Heavyweights on cable a couple weeks ago. I hadn’t seen it since it first hit home video, which I imagine was around 1996. At the time, I thought it that the only thing keeping this movie from being Disney’s version of Revenge of the Nerds set at a fat camp was Ben Stiller’s weird, hyper-charged performance as fitness guru/camp dictator Tony Perkis.
Watching it now, though, is a revelation. It’s what I like to call a Seed Movie; that is, a film that has within it several elements that become pop culturally significant years after its release. Some fine examples are School Ties, the anti-Semitism-in-the-50s teen drama so packed with young stars playing private school kids that it’s almost impossible to look at a wide shot and not see someone famous; there’s also The Burning, a fantastic summer camp slasher that boasts the debuts of Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander. Heavyweights ranks high among Seed Movies, and here are five reasons you should not write it off.
- Catch a rising star! In addition to the appearance of established actors (some famous, some less-so), Heavyweights has a supporting cast full of “I Know That Guy” performers. From current Saturday Night Live player Kenan Thompson as one of the campers, to Jack-of-all-trades Paul Feig (The Office, Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks) as a counselor, there’s no shortage of then-undiscovered-talent lurking in the periphery. Look out for Tim Blake Nelson, Allen Covert, and Judd Apatow, too.
- Ah, yes, Judd Apatow! Before he became the Supreme Overlord of Raunchy Man-Child Comedy, Apatow co-wrote Heavyweights with director Steven Brill. The film has that unmistakable stamp of plucky, awkward underdog misery that would later inform Freaks and Geeks, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up—as well as the films Apatow would go on to produce, most notably, Superbad. One can easily trace Steve Carrell’s character’s obsession with action figures in Virgin to the bizarre food orgy in Heavyweights; the filmmakers don’t make fun of their protagonists’ vices, they showcase them in a way that makes them endearing—if not totally relatable—to the audience.
- Heavyweights is the prequel to Dodgeball! Okay, not officially; but Stiller’s Perkis character, with his cartoonish deep voice and impossibly shredded body not only makes Heavyweights a blast to watch, they also pop up again in Dodgeball—where he plays the demented fitness-junky owner of a gym. It’s not a stretch to imagine Perkis—defeated and broken by the bulge-is-beautiful uprising in his camp at the end of Heavyweights—changing his name to White Goodman and trying to take down Vince Vaughn and his out-of-shape loser friends.
- George Lucas loves Heavyweights! I can’t prove this, but if you watch the climactic go-cart race between the fat camp and the snotty athletic boys’ camp, you may notice eerie similarities with the pod race in Star Wars: Episode One (released in 1999). It’s not just the bouncing, kinetic motion that makes me think this—or the fact that I over-analyze absolutely everything in the movies I watch—it’s also the wardrobe. If you were to do a split-screen of Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker and David Goldman as Nicholas, both in close-up as they pilot their racers, you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference; from the oversized goggles to the earth-toned outfits, I’d bet 1000 Republic credits that Lucas stole a lot from Heavyweights—on the (correct) assumption that no one would see it.
- Electrified Fences! In a critical scene, Nicholas and his friends revolt against Perkis and his fitness goons. But this isn’t a cutesy “Heck no, we won’t go” protest. This is full-on Lord of the Flies rebellion, involving tying people to trees and smearing them with honey, and holding captors in dirt cells surrounded by electrified fences. Before the kindly adult counselors show up to convince the kids that they should be nice to the bod squad, there’s a really uncomfortable five minutes where one wonders if the “villains” might not end up on a barbecue spit. It’s deliciously dark stuff, and I credit Apatow and Brill for sneaking this off-putting subversion into a theatrically distributed Disney movie.
The funny thing about Seed Movies is that by the time they’re recognized as such, the sheen of revelation often makes it difficult to judge the film on its own merits. I can’t sufficiently evaluate Heavyweights as a comedy or a family film because my mind kept making these weird connections during it. What would my reaction have been if I’d seen it in 1995? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have seen it in ‘95, as I was too busy repeatedly watching Pulp Fiction (fourteen in all during its initial run—God, I miss free time).
If you plan on watching Heavyweights, I don’t expect you to enjoy it as a great comedy time capsule—or even as a good movie. On its face, the film is probably just above average—again, thanks to Stiller. But with the right kind of eyes, you can marvel at the perfect storm of strange ideas, undiscovered talent and just plain energy that would someday give birth to far more important things (excluding, of course, Episode One).