Americana Movie Month: "Wet Hot American Summer" Review

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The setting is Camp Firewood, the year 1981. It's the last day before everyone goes back to the real world, but there's still a summer's worth of unfinished business to resolve. At the center of the action is camp director Beth, who struggles to keep order while she falls in love with the local astrophysics professor. He is busy trying to save the camp from a deadly piece of NASA's Skylab which is hurtling toward earth.
3.5

Americana Movie Month: "Wet Hot American Summer" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 23, 2001
Directed by: David Wain
Genre: Comedy/Romance

When it first came out in 2001, "Wet Hot American Summer" was a work of nostalgia. Director David Wain's satirical comedy takes place at a Maine summer camp during August of 1981. Over the years since its release, the film has developed a whole new layer of nostalgia that goes beyond its 1980s setting. The movie features some of the best comedic talents of the 1990s and early 2000s, including Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, and Molly Shannon. It also features many stars who have gone on to shine even brighter, such as Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Rudd.

With such an impressive lineup, the comedy seemed to have destined for instant success. However, like many unconventional and subversive movies, "Wet Hot American Summer" did not fare well with critics when it first came out. It also failed to appeal to mainstream audiences. Renowned critic Roger Ebert panned the film. Rather than just fading into the background, though, Wain's film steadily gained a cult following. The very qualities that made the comedy such a failure in the eyes of some critics turned it into an enduring success. Zany, raunchy, weird, and wild, the madcap satire has a certain goofy appeal.

At Camp Firewood, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), the no-nonsense camp director, has to maintain order over a group of hormonal teens. The task is even more difficult than usual thanks to the fact that this is the final day of summer camp. The teens realize that this is their last chance for romance (or at least for a quick fling) before heading back to reality. Even Beth ends up being caught in the spell, as she falls in love with a brainy astrophysicist (David Hyde Pierce) from a nearby university. The astrophysicist is interested in Camp Firewood because it might be the final destination for a chunk of the NASA Skylab, now hurtling towards earth. Beth has so many stars in her eyes that she finds it hard to focus on the actual night sky, much less on the teens under her care. The result is more mayhem than ever.

Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is a gorgeous counselor who looks amazing in a bikini. Andy (Paul Rudd) is her intense and hot-tempered boyfriend who takes her for granted. Katie has another boy in her life, a sensitive and romantic guy named Coop (Michael Showalter). The problem is that Katie doesn't seem to understand that her friend Coop is a better match for her than a callous guy like Andy. This love triangle is not the only drama taking place at Camp Firewood. Susie (Amy Poehler) is working with Ben (Bradley Cooper) to organize an amazing talent show, whether the campers are onboard with the idea or not. McKinley (Michael Ian Black) piques the curiosity of his peers when they realize he is not interested in any of the beautiful women at the camp. Gail (Molly Shannon) is an arts and crafts instructor who turns to her campers for comfort. All this drama takes place over a short span of time, making it feel even more hectic.

As the name probably suggests, "Wet Hot American Summer" does not aim to be an Oscar-winning drama. Audience members who have a low tolerance for campiness and weird humor might not enjoy the film. However, the comedy definitely delivers the laughs, even if the jokes are not always nuanced and subtle. Some of the plot points are hard to take seriously, such as the PTSD-suffering camp chef (Christopher Meloni) and his odd relationship with a talking can of vegetables (H. Jon Benjamin). Thanks to the genuine comedic chops of the ensemble cast, though, the absurd gags work out in the end.

A good satire is hard to find. Even the best satire runs the risk of adopting the very flaws that it seeks to mock. "Wet Hot American Summer" pokes fun at the Reagan era, taking on the cheesy and over-the-top teen comedies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Through the lens of late 1990s and early 2000s irony, this kind of ham-fisted, gross-out corniness seems especially juvenile. Yet, despite a few missteps, Wain is a self-aware first-time director. All the sleazy jokes and corny slapstick moments are much more intentional and multilayered than they seem. As a purposefully lowbrow comedy, "Wet Hot American Summer" has a surprisingly highbrow fan following. Although Wain intended the film as nostalgic homage to the 1980s, the final product accomplishes more than that. It also celebrates the great comedic minds of the early 2000s.

Rating 3.5 out of 5