The Film: Heavyweights (1995)
The Principles: Written by Judd Apatow and Steven Brill. Directed by Steven Brill. Acted by Ben Stiller, Aaron Schwartz, Shaun Weiss, Kenan Thompson, Paul Feig, and Tom McGowan.
The Premise: At Camp Hope, overweight boys enjoy fun in the sun with no regard for actually shedding pounds. It’s a safe haven for the boys because at Camp Hope, you’re not the fat kid, everybody’s the fat kid. That is until the camp is taken over by psychotic fitness guru Tony Perkis, who turns the boys’ summer into a weight-loss infomercial from hell. Pushed to the edge of sanity and starvation, the boys stage a coup.
Is It Good: Disney scored a series of live-action hits in the early ’90s. There was The Mighty Ducks and its sequels, Homeward Bound, Cool Runnings, and that one where Christian Bale sings and dances instead of delivering newspapers. Amidst this flurry of lucrative live-action flicks stood one black sheep – a film that tanked critically, bombed financially, and left its target audience confused and a little frightened. I speak of the grand-champion of live-action Disney films: Heavyweights.
Conceived by the minds of Judd Apatow and Steven Brill, Heavyweights was ahead of its time and it’s a wonder that Disney greenlit the damn thing at all. It’s dark, subversive, and features one of the best nut-punches ever. To keep the superlatives rolling, it also features the greatest Ben Stiller performance. Hands-down. Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying the psychotic genius of his Tony Perkis character. He’s a demented fitness guru who’s been “raised by private tutors” his whole life and is “looking forward to interacting with children for the first time.” His goal is to film the entire summer and turn Camp Hope into a weight-loss infomercial. And he doesn’t mind making insubordinate children “disappear” to make his dreams a reality.
In some of the scenes, Stiller’s delivery is downright brilliant. As the film progresses and Tony loses grip with reality, the performance gets even more insane, or, as Tony puts it himself, “a bit over-the-top.” The Ben Stiller Show had been cancelled a year or so earlier and you can tell in Heavyweights he was hungry to break out into film. It’s definitely his watershed performance and one that he later aped for his role in Dodgeball.
Apatow has stated that their idea for Heavyweights was a prison movie set in a fat camp, and lucky for them they rallied one helluva cast to play the obese prisoners. Some of the actors were coming off the success of The Mighty Ducks films – Aaron Schwartz (Gerry), Shaun Weiss (Josh), and Kenan Thompson (Roy) – which probably helped sway Disney to make the film, but all of the kids are fantastic. It’s super rare to get this many capable child actors, let alone charismatic ones.
They fart, pig out, awkwardly dance, and not once lose an ounce of weight. In the end, they pull off the impossible and win the Apache Relay against the villainous twats of Camp MVP. The whole relay always felt like a tacked-on ending to me, but it redeems itself in the final moments, when they hurl the trophy into the lake. You don’t do that in kid films – throw away the trophy. But Heavyweights does and there’s a message in there somewhere, I swear.
There’s a ton of memorable shit in the film, like Tony’s right-hand man Lars (Tom Hodges), who comes from somewhere “far away.” The Apocalypse Now-style food fight bonfire is a nightmarish whirlwind of gluttony that even as a kid made me feel dirty. Paul Feig, who would go on to create Freaks and Geeks, has a great turn as the skinny counselor, Tim. The inter-camp dance scene where he and Tom McGowan save the day is pure cinematic joy, even if Tony ruins it in the end. I could go on and on listing off the great moments and quotable lines – pretty much every scene is gold.
The comedy in the film was ahead of its time and it seems like society has just caught up with it over the past few years. It’s a mixture of absurd, vulgar, and darkly bizarre that feels way more mature now then it did back then. The film has its uncomfortable black moments as well that totally don’t seem appropriate for Disney. Like the surly cafeteria worker who holds a burning cigarette as he tells the kids that their friend Josh is dead. While some of the darker scenes aren’t particularly unsettling in their content, it’s the tone that makes them feel comically black for a kid’s film.
Heavyweights explores some of themes that recur in later Apatow films: social anxiety, platonic intimacy, and maladjustment in general. It would be years until he became a household name, but hell, I’ll take Heavyweights over This Is 40 any day of the week.
I forgot to mention the film also features Stiller’s hilarious parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jeffrey Tambor. Why isn’t this your favorite movie?!?!
Is It Worth a Look: If you haven’t ever seen the film or haven’t revisited it now that you’ve lost that baby fat, I highly suggest giving it a whirl. I guarantee you’ll be quoting the shit out of it afterwards, you devil log! In my book, it’s the greatest live-action Disney film of all time. Buy it from CHUD!
Random Anecdotes: Actor Aaron Schwartz fractured his arm while filming the food fight bonfire scene and they had to hide his cast in subsequently shot parts.
Ben Stiller worked out for four hours a day in preparation for the role. Dude is jacked as hell in the film.
Disney made them cut out a bit near the end where Ben Stiller is shooting arrows at the kids. There’s also a deleted scene featured on the Blu-ray where the kids are trying to give each other boners. Not kidding!
Apatow states on the Blu-ray commentary track that he ran into Paul Thomas Anderson one day and the filmmaker told him he loves Heavyweights.
Cinematic Soulmates: The Mighty Ducks, Escape From Alcatraz, Angus