A Review of Wet Hot American Summer

We’re deep in the middle of summer, which means everyone’s staying inside watching Netflix to beat the heat. Which means, to respond to the increased demand, Netflix is launching new shows.

One unusual pick for development is a revival of Wet Hot American Summer. The film is gaining a Lebowski-esque cult following but is still a risky gamble for anyone to resurrect. The film was critically savaged and bombed. The creators (Michael Showalter and David Wain) are veterans of The State, an amazingly funny 90s sketch show. However, follow ups to that film have ranged from spectacularly funny hits (Reno 911) to the quickly cancelled TV oddities (Stella and Michael and Michael Have Issues) to unfunny messes (Balls of Fury, aka that dumb ping-pong movie that had Christopher Walken).

Maybe Netflix sees something in Wet Hot that demonstrates a revival? Whatever it is, it’s not something I saw rewatching the original film.

Now, the film was a lot funnier than I remembered. I don’t understand why it was roundly dismissed as completely unfunny, especially when grotesque sex comedies like Van Wilder were all the rage. But don’t expect me to join the cult.

The biggest problem with the film is that it never finds the appropriate tone or style of humor. It’s ostensibly a parody of Meatballs (which, excluding Bill Murray, was a much worse movie than this one) but seems to have anticipated the sweeter, gentler comedies that Judd Apatow would start making four years later.

This is where the film is at its funniest. One scene has Michael Ian Black walking into the booth where the child is delivering the morning announcements on the last day of summer camp. (The film takes place over the course of one day during the summer of 1981.) He orders the kid, repeatedly, to take a shower.  It’s a scene with two lines, but the delivery makes it hilarious. Black is increasingly aggravated by the kid as he repeatedly promises to bathe himself. It’s obvious that this tension has been going on for a while and what’s unsaid makes it work.

That’s the sort of humor I liked in Red Hot American Summer. It’s simple but also honest about the sort of people who went to summer camp in the 1980s – or, these days, about the kids who are watching Ernest Goes to Camp while their middle-aged parents remember their sexual escapades from 1981.

The film, as it must, explores the fact that getting teenagers together in such close proximity is bound to lead to all sorts of sexual tension and soap opera like declarations of love. I don’t fault the dumb dialogue during the scenes where counselor Coop (Showalter) declares his love for Katie (Marguerite Moreau). It leads to a great payoff where Katie declared she’d rather be with the hot guy than with the love struck loser. This was such an obvious joke that I’m surprised it had never been made before.

I also admires that the film never devolved into a T & A affair that was less interested in exploring adolescence and more interested in bikini tops and the taking off of same. In a movie that is meant to satirize those teens movies that hire nubile stars just so we can see their breasts, that would have ruined the joke. There are plenty of counselors who are at the camp to make out, but they’re the object of mockery. Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay was my favorite. She was a character so desperate to make out with Paul Rudd she didn’t care about the fact that her face was covered in barbecue sauce. She also doesn’t seem to notice that two young campers manage to take a motorboat while she’s on the dock with Rudd.

So, where exactly does the film go wrong?

The biggest problem was that there was no straight character to play off. In a camp where everyone is independently weird, there is no one to ground the audience.

The camp director Beth (played by the insufferable Jeanne Garofolo) comes the closest to being a voice of reason.  But she’s just as obsessed with a crush as any of her teenaged employees. She breathlessly follows the professor (the far funnier David Hyde Pierce) on whatever nonsense he spouts. What’s odd is that she repeats it with the slight whiff of sarcasm, as though she wants to point out how insane he is. One scene late in the film involves the professor trying to save the camp from a crashing Skylab. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds. But Beth still follows him to see it through.

She’s an inconsistent character, but at least she’s developed as a character. Several of the more interesting characters are not even given names. The kids suffer the most, which is bad for a movie about summer camp. One kid, introduced at the beginning as a huge Dungeons & Dragons fan, but he’s only listed as ” boy with cape” in the credits. Doesn’t he have something he wants from the camp? Does he get tired of living in a fantasy world? The movie never says anything about most of its characters.

Also, the comedy changes on a dime when the scene requires it, especially in the third act. The Skylab plot point is a good example. It could be a nice isolated moment of comedy and drama. The whole point seemed to be to give the misfits of the camp something to do. But the thing is, they’re correct and Skylab nearly DOES destroy the camp.

It doesn’t work as comedy because it feels far too fantastical compared to what came earlier. There is a way to make it work, of course. It could be a hoax that brings the misfit kids together, and the end could be that their friendship is more important than their being duped. That would fit in the “stupid teen movie trope” parody the film was going for, especially if the kids decide they hate each other after all.

It also makes no sense for one kid to create a hurricane at the climactic talent show. Equally nonsensical is the talent show’s emcee, who tells bad jokes and gets huge laughs. Is that meant to be the joke? I hope not because that’s pathetically stupid. The film started off doing so much right but ended up doing wrong.

Wet Hot American Summer is neither the unfunny mess it was labelled upon its release nor the spectacular gem that many cult fans would have you believe. It exists somewhere in between as a film that would be fine to fill time on Comedy Central but not something necessarily worth celebrating. Still, there are some good ideas here and maybe the Netflix revival will focus on those and ignore Skylab.

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