Director: David Wain
Cast: Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
It's a surprise I've managed to avoid seeing Wet Hot American Summer for so long, considering that I have a long-documented love affair with 80's summer camp movies and absurdist comedies.
What's not a surprise, however, is how long it took me to write this review. Considering how a list of great jokes doesn't really count as legitimate film analysis and considering how there's precious little more than great jokes in the construction of WHAS, there's not a lot else to say.
But guess what! I'm gonna say it anyway. Suckers.
Wet Hot American Summer is essentially a series of interconnected sketches given context through the location and residents of Camp Firewood, a 1981 Jewish summer camp in the forests of Maine. Because he is shown first and has the most complete character arc, the de facto protagonist is nerdy counselor Coop Cooperberg (Michael Showalter), but the story is mostly composed of vignettes starring a clown car of contemporary and future stars.
We've got Romy and Michele's Janeane Garofalo as the head counselor, Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers' Paul Rudd as the resident bad boy, Elizabeth Banks as his bikini-clad companion, David Hyde Pierce as the astrophysicist next door, and Amy Freaking Poehler and Bradley Hulking Cooper as the officious siblings who run the talent show. The ensemble is fleshed out with Ken Marino (In A World...), Michael Ian Black (Ed), and Molly Shannon (SNL), among about a dozen others. Seriously, the wattage on this tiny 2001 comedy could short out every circuit breaker in a large city. Or one of Paris Hilton's smaller vacation homes.
My face every time a new character comes onscreen.
Think of all the Ant-Man/Pitch Perfect spin-offs this pairing could create.
Over the course of its 97 minutes, WHAS runs the gamut of just about every type of comedy under the sun (not to mention one or two lunar styles), but its biggest strength lies in absurdist subversion of the typical tropes of the teen sex comedy. Entire lung-busting scenes are built from the insertion of just one cliché line and the exploration of its implications. The screenwriters pick apart semiotics of the genre that the typical audience would never pick up on because they're so accustomed to the formula that they just don't think about it anymore.
Wet Hot American Summer is willing to do that thinking, and as a result, many of its parodic scenes are intelligently tilted into the absurd. In general, the absurdity of the film is its shining light, as the gods of comedy arbitrarily raise the stakes in low drama scenes, thwart any possible expectations, and spur laughter from even the stoniest of guts. Also, the denouement creates a surprisingly feminist thesis, and the films treatment of homosexuality as a running gag is similarly sensitive, surpassing even the genre titan Will & Grace in terms of its treatment of minority sexualities.
You might notice that I'm tip-toeing around the actual contents of these scenes, but that's because spoiling the jokes completely removes any reason to view the film. And therein lies the biggest flaw of Wet Hot American Summer.
Besides this haircut, I mean.
Much of the comedy is genuinely enjoyable, but the film has no meat and potatoes. It's all sugar, and the rush wears off quickly. The sketches have no geographical or character continuity between them, and some of them are exceedingly pointless, tossing themselves like boulders in the path of the film's pacing. Two of the film's worst moments are given favored run times, and one recurring gag culminates in a sputtering finale that not only utterly fails to even attempt to be funny, but interrupts the film during a key third act moment.
But all in all, Wet Hot American Summer is necessary viewing for any fan of teen romps like American Pie or scatterbrained absurdity like Monty Python or National Lampoon. In spite of its flaws and its relative shallowness (as compared to true classics like Airplane! and other Leslie Nielsen vehicles, in both senses of the word), it has a lot of joy to give and I can't bring myself to deny anybody of its pleasures.
TL;DR: Wet Hot American Summer is an intelligent absurdist comedy that's genuinely funny, but perhaps too thin to be a truly unimpeachable classic.
Rating: 7/10Word Count: 745