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‘Meatballs’ full of hearty family fare

POSTED: September 23, 2009 11:30 p.m.
/Columbia Pictures

Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) is an aspiring meteorologist, and Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is an inventor in "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs."

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Has there ever been a more appropriate week to review a movie called "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs?"

As a real deluge soaked the Southeast — I hope a thorough soaking is the worst the storm did to you — this earnest animated family movie drenched all other new releases with a flood of funny.

OK, I’ve gotten all weather jokes out of my system. I think.

We meet Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), the hero of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," when he is a boy inventor whose ambition far outpaces his skills. Most of his inventions, like his spray-on shoes and hair unbalder, backfire badly.

His mother (Lauren Graham) always found a way to encourage him, but she dies by the time Flint has become a young man.

Adult Flint still lives with his disapproving father (James Caan) and has built his own inventor’s workshop in a treehouse. This lair resembles the Starship Enterprise command bridge, yet it is built out of found objects such as egg cartons and old stereo equipment. Flint’s optimism, boundless imagination and enthusiasm are contagious and place the movie’s heart in exactly the right place.

The island where Flint lives (located on the map under the "A" in "Atlantic"!) once thrived on an economy built on sardines, which came crashing down when everyone "realized sardines are really gross." Not even the locals want to eat sardines anymore.

Flint sees this as an opportunity to finally invent something that will truly help people, so he creates a machine that transforms water into food. The invention works, but an overdose of power launches it into the stratosphere. So now, Flint types menu requests into his computer, which beams the request to the food machine, which then rains down the order.

This phenomenon brings aspiring meteorologist Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) to town. Sam is a very smart girl, but she hides her inner geek with make-up and a ditzy act so she doesn’t intimidate boys and/or potential friends.

Hollywood has made a cliché of the brainy ugly duckling who takes off her glasses and lets her hair down to reveal a hidden beauty.

"Meatballs" subverts the cliché, because Sam becomes most beautiful when she puts on the thick glasses, ties her hair in a scrunchy, and lets her brains show. Flint and Sam make one of the most adorable couples we’ve seen in quite some time.

Good thing Sam showed up, too, because soon she will help Flint rescue his ideals and the town when the food machine inevitably begins to malfunction.

The children’s book by Ron and Judi Barrett provides the raw story material, and the writing-directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller add a steady stream of sight gags and an incredible voice cast.

Hader, Faris and Caan all are surprisingly charming, and they get hilarious support from Bruce Campbell (whose weird mix of menace and camp fits the town’s opportunistic mayor perfectly), Andy Samberg, Mr. T, Benjamin Bratt and Neil Patrick Harris.

"Meatballs" comes at us rapid fire with an endless stream of slapstick and sarcasm. The irreverent tone announces itself immediately when the familiar Columbia Pictures logo appears. Columbia wields the torch majestically, then a banana falls from the sky, knocking her off her pedestal and taking her place.

"Meatballs" may not enter the realm of the classics, but this is one of the most purely likeable movies released all year. It manages to be unoffensive and harmless without becoming bland and saccharin. That’s a difficult line to walk, but "Meatballs" does it.

The movie offers plenty of moral lessons (too many?), of course, but you’ll probably be laughing too hard to notice.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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