Published on November 21st, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Wet Hot American Summer 
Summary: A cast full of future A-listers pull together this low-budget nod to the summer camp comedy. The story has little direction and feels more like a troupe of hungry actors simply showing their chops on the big stage. It’s far from perfect but is an exciting watch and will make you wish you could spend a summer with these characters.
R | 97 min.
Director: David Wain
Screenplay: David Wain, Michael Showalter
Starring: Michael Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd
Distribution: USA Films
U.S. Box Office: $295,206 (#252 of 2001)
When you watch an ambitious, low-budget ensemble comedy like Wet Hot American Summer years after its release, it comes with a thrill that only a movie like this can deliver. It’s like seeing those old television clips of Tiger Woods playing golf as a youngster; you know you’re witnessing greatness at it’s most raw.
Thirteen years after it hit theaters, it’s clear the people who crafted this film are geniuses of comedy. Wet Hot American Summer represents these eager young talents getting an early shot at proving their chops on the big stage. What results is 97 minutes of scattered storylines and excited performances that feels like a summer camp-themed performance from a live comedy troupe, rather than a coherent movie.
Sometimes the sum of the parts really is greater than the whole.
Directed by David Wain (Role Models, The Ten), who co-wrote the screenplay with his working partner Michael Showalter — both formerly of MTV’s cult sketch series The State — Wet Hot American Summer is one of those films that wants desperately to have been made in the ‘80s.
Taking place at a Jewish summer camp in Maine on the final day of camp in 1981, the movie is intentionally reminiscent of outings like Meatballs and Porky’s. While I feel Wain and Showalter have an affinity for these teens-go-wild romps, it’s not always clear if they are paying respect to those pictures or lambasting them.
The cast of Wet Hot American Summer is without question the film’s greatest asset as you will spot another recognizable actor in nearly every passing scene. Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper each appear in their first sizable film roles along with up-and-coming talents like Paul Rudd and Ken Marino (both mainstays of every subsequent Wain movie). Also in the mix are already-established talents like Molly Shannon, David Hyde Pierce and Janeane Garofalo.
Wain has been quoted as saying the movie was made on a budget of $1.8 million — a sum that many of those names wouldn’t even get out of bed for today. Thus the excitement of a film like this, it’s a group of future stars who were handed a camera and given free rein.
From its opening frames, it’s clear we are in for some good old-fashioned ‘80s debauchery. The guitar/keyboard attack of Jefferson Starship’s “Jane” blares as the camera pans in slow-motion around a campfire, and we see various teens making out and partying around the flames. A title card tells us it’s the last day of summer and we are out of the gates as the kids and counselors at Camp Firewood get one last stab at summer glory.
Structurally, Wet Hot American Summer owes a bit to the massive ensemble pictures of Robert Altman as our character of focus changes with each scene. The closest we come to lead characters are Coop (Showalter) and Beth (Garofalo). Coop, a counselor, is painfully awkward in both dress and manner but the former is no big deal because most of the male characters wear short shorts anyhow. Beth, the camp’s director, is slightly less awkward and mostly indifferent to what the kids are up to.
Typical summer camp movie storylines play out: Coop and Beth each attempt to win the heart of a secret crush, some campers need to be rescued from mortal peril, several counselors try to get laid, and the entire film culminates in a big talent show.
I give Wet Hot American Summer credit for acknowledging some of the genre clichés it harbors. One great scene comes as Coop gives an inspiring speech to his baseball team before their game with a competing camp. “The whole thing feels trite,” one young player says of the speech. “It’s pretty well-worn territory,” another agrees. After hearing these complaints, Coop marches over to the competing team’s bus and cancels the game.
Some of the characters are really funny, albeit thinly constructed. Rudd cracked me up as an aloof ladies man named Andy, carrying a serious case of commitment phobia. His character is typically seen with his tongue in the mouth of an attractive co-star until he inevitably loses interest in them. He and Elizabeth Banks take a break from aggressively making out only for him to compliment, “You French great.” A few scenes later, he stops kissing her to say, “You taste like a burger. I don’t like you anymore.”
The romance between Garofalo and Hyde Pierce is really stilted and their subplot slows the action down a good bit. The same goes for Marino’s character Victor — a brawny type known for his tales of sexual conquest, despite being a virgin — whose storyline involves him making a ridiculous trek in the name of getting some action. Marino is a funny guy and makes the most of his scenes but ultimately has the most cartoonish moments of Wet Hot American Summer.
Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper — arguably the biggest stars to come from this movie — are fantastic together, as they direct the camp’s talent show. Dressed in sick-inducing neon colors with matching blond locks, the pair seem to be perfectly synchronized. Poehler is hilarious as she berates the show’s young performers, “Your craft is a muscle, guys. You need to exercise it!” Cooper brings a sentimentality to the movie as a gay teen in a relationship with fellow counselor Michael Ian Black (another alumnus of The State).
My favorite moments of the movie came from Christopher Meloni (Oz, Law and Order) as Gene, the camp’s cook who also happens to be a Vietnam veteran clearly suffering through some PTSD. There aren’t many big laughs in Wet Hot American Summer but I lost it during Gene’s conversation with a can of mixed vegetables that he believes can talk. “I can suck my own dick,” the can confides during a heart-to-heart chat about honesty. “And I do it. A lot.”
Wet Hot American Summer is full of moments that earn its R-rating but at other times, it seems to want to be a cutesy teen romance flick. One scene sees the camp’s counselors getting strung out on heroin while visiting the nearby town and another sees two of those same characters comically giving each the other’s sweater or flannel shirt because they are cold. There isn’t much direction to the movie’s proceedings.
This film doesn’t build to a climactic athletic competition like Meatballs and its characters don’t find the profound sense of personal growth and accomplishment that comes in Heavyweights (for the record, my favorite summer camp flick). Instead, the audience is treated to a ton of gags and barely connected storylines.
As far as conflict goes, there really isn’t any of that in Wet Hot American Summer either. No antagonists exist in the picture and any of the strife that crops up along the way just feels light and tacked on.
What I didn’t expect from a movie as satirical as this one — made by a gang of Gen-X comedians — was such a happy-go-lucky result. This is a film where everyone fits in and even the most oddball character has their moment in the sun. The pudgy kid who lights his own fart onstage at the talent show even gets big applause from the audience! Nobody really gets made fun of or ends up the butt of a joke, giving Camp Firewood a tight-knit feel that makes you wish it were a real place. I would call Wet Hot American Summer one of the most feelgood R-rated comedies I’ve ever seen.
I give credit to the executives at USA Films (now Focus Features), for tossing some precious dollars at an experimental little comedy filled with a hungry cast that was toiling away at the edge of stardom. That’s exciting filmmaking.