Sunday, June 01, 2014

Wet Hot American Summer


Hormones and emotions are running high at Camp Firewood on the last day of the summer of 1981. In WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER the teenage counselors and adult administrators are looking for love, especially if it’s been elusive during these muggy months, while their pre-teen charges are sad over the imminent separation from their new best friends.

Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) has her eye on vacationing astrophysics associate professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce). Shy counselor Coop (Michael Showalter) is infatuated with Katie (Marguerite Moreau), but she’s dating resident bad boy Andy (Paul Rudd). Big-talking Victor (Ken Marino) is desperate to score with a ready and willing Abby (Marisa Ryan), but being assigned to take some boys a couple hours away for whitewater rafting may thwart his chance. Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) are preoccupied with organizing the evening’s talent show. Arts and crafts teacher Gail (Molly Shannon), whose marriage is in shambles, is about as stable as a macaroni art project.

Written by The State’s Showalter and David Wain, who also directs, and featuring other members of the sketch comedy troupe, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER unfolds in short episodes from the final day of the season. It begins as a straightforward spoof of late 1970s and early 1980s camp films, programming seemingly in heavy rotation on pay cable movie channels in the mid-’80s. (MEATBALLS, a clear inspiration for this film, is the most prominent example.)

True to The State’s absurdist style, the film evolves into something much weirder and more unpredictable. The humor is rooted in intentional continuity errors, non sequiturs, and montages riffing on films with no relevance to camp comedies. There’s a distinct hit-and-miss quality to the various ideas they’re playing with, but enough of these strange jokes connect for WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER to succeed. For instance, a pep talk before and team response to a big game subverts expectations. Rudd behaves like a petulant toddler when ordered to clean up the mess he makes in the cafeteria.

The execution and exaggeration of the counselors going on an over-the-top bender during an infrequent opportunity to go into town make the montage sufficiently funny, but what elevates the scene is how it reflects real camp life. The same goes for the talent show scene and its host Alan Shemper (Showalter), a Catskills comedian who hasn’t written a joke too hacky to tell. The gag is that none of what hits the camp stage is funny, but the insular community and campers starved for entertainment eat it up. The outsized reactions serve as the punchlines.

In addition to the actors already mentioned, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER also features Elizabeth Banks, Christopher Meloni, and Michael Ian Black. Like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and DAZED AND CONFUSED, the cast is a remarkable assemblage of future stars. Many are now bigger names than those top-billed during the film’s 2001 release.

With a cast decked out in ringer tees with iron-ons in Cooper Black font, tube socks, puka shell necklaces, muscle shirts, and midriffs, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER evokes warm memories of movies that likely weren’t very good. Oddly, the film plays better when thinking back to it than it necessarily does while watching it. That quality likely owes to the scattershot nature of the humor, but it also indicates that like the best comedies, it improves over time and repeated viewings.

Grade: B-

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