Summer Classics: "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.
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Rating: R
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: July 27, 2001
Directed by: David Wain
Genre: Comedy / Romance

For people of a certain age, the early to mid 1990s were well represented by what was on MTV: music videos from the emergent alt-rock scene and bizarre, experimental animation programs with names like "Aeon Flux" and "Liquid Television." But the times were best exemplified by the youthful, energetic and ultimately influential sketch comedy of "The State." The various college-age members of "The State" eventually went on to create different comedic project, most of them fairly successful, and some very successful. In the summer of 2001, "Wet Hot American Summer," a project written and directed by former "The State" troupe members, with a couple of "State" alums also in the cast, had a fairly quiet release. However, since then the comedy has developed a strong cult following, and several of its stars have become hugely famous. A closer look reveals why "Wet Hot American Summer" has become a classic comedy and how the film benefits from the unique genius of its cast and crew.

The poster for "Wet Hot American Summer" does not bring to mind the time period movie's early 21st-century release. Rather, the artwork suggests a different era, 20 years earlier, when raunchy teen comedies like "Porky's" briefly ruled the box office. This is no mistake, as the story is set in the summer of 1981, a time period that allows the costume and set designers to really go to town to create an overall look that is both nostalgic and more than a bit derisive — perfect for adults who remember the era and younger viewers who may not remember but will still enjoy laughing all the same.

The campy aesthetics of this romp are also no mistake, as it does take place at a summer camp. "Wet Hot American Summer" takes place at a summer camp, but it is not really about the camp's younger attendees but rather the teenage counselors who are trying to get the most out of the waning days of summer. As one of many tongue-in-cheek references to popular teen comedies of yore, portraying the "teens" here are actors who are well into their 20s, at least.

Janeane Garofalo, who had no small share of box office success in the 1990s, shows no hesitation to throw herself and her considerable talent into this low-budget comedy. Garofalo plays camp director Beth and inhabits the role perfectly. Beth is wonderfully uptight, out of touch and in love with astrophysicist Henry Newman, who lives close to the camp. David Hyde Pierce, another successful and well-compensated star who gave his all for this low-budget production, plays this character, who makes his character on "Frasier" look positively slick and laid-back in comparison. In a nod to the film's period, Henry fears an errant piece of Skylab will destroy the camp.

Michael Showalter played Doug on "The State," who was likely the show's most popular recurring character. In addition to co-writing the "Wet Hot American Summer" script with David Wain, Showalter plays Gerald Cooperberg, or Coop. Coop suffers an unrequited crush on co-worker Katie, played by Marguerite Moreau, but must compete with the much more confident Andy.

Showalter obviously enjoys playing with archetype of the insecure nebbish. Like much of this movie, the character of Coop is a well-worn trope that is explored in a fresh and enjoyable fashion. Showalter show his range by also playing old-school Catskill-style comedian Alan Shemper.

None other than Paul Rudd plays Andy. With a starring role in 1995's "Clueless," Paul Rudd was already well on his way to massive mainstream fame when "Wet Hot American Summer" came out. However, this role helped convince the world, or at least filmmakers like Adam McKay and Judd Apatow, that Rudd was a comedic force to be reckoned with. Without "Wet Hot American Summer," the world would likely be a much different place. At least "Anchorman" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" would have likely been much different films.

As the absurdity and comic anarchy of "Wet Hot American Summer" continues, a slew of familiar comic faces, and voices, contribute to the movie's singular vision. There is Michael Ian Black from "The State" and Molly Shannon from "SNL." Jon Benjamin, now beloved for his work on "Bob's Burgers" and "Acher," lends his famous voice to a vegetable can. The movie is fairly sketch-like: loose and focused on individual bits. Fortunately, it never becomes disjointed.

In addition to its now iconic cast, "Wet Hot American Summer" is unique in its commitment to characters who were at once distinct but also over the top caricatures. The overall humor is similar: reverent to past movies, but also unmistakably irreverent and original.

There were critics who did not know what to make of it at the time, but it is no wonder that this low-budget unassuming comedy has since struck a chord with a growing cult audience and numerous Hollywood comedy heavyweights.

"Wet Hot American Summer" was relatively unassuming during its original theatrical run. However, over a decade later, it is impossible not to see how important and influential it is in modern film comedy. Even putting historical context aside, this David Wain-helmed production stands on its own with a blend of unique talents in an odd and wonderful comic vision like nothing else before or since.