Wet Hot American Summer

Wet Hot American Summer seems at first glance like one of those Super Sounds of the ’80s nostalgia movies that seem to be made for the express purpose of having a kitschy soundtrack. But really it isn’t. There are actually relatively few oldies to be heard — Theodore Shapiro and Craig Wedren have composed a scarily exact original score that sounds just like a crappy ’80s score, and just crappy enough to let you know they’re in on the joke — though the ’80s tunes in evidence, including not one but two Loverboy songs, are well-judged and well-used. The movie doesn’t use its sound to poke you into false nostalgia. Wet Hot American Summer is pretty much an ’80s camp comedy, only more so. It tips its hat to Meatballs and its multitude of imitators without really borrowing wholesale from them; this, as far as I can see (unless I’ve missed some impossibly obscure 1981 Z-budget Canadian-tax-shelter comedies it specifically references), is an original.

It’s the last day of camp, 1981 (for some reason, much is made of the fact that this is a predominantly Jewish camp). Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) flirts dorkily with nearby astrophysics professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce). Helmet-haired counselor Coop (co-writer Michael Showalter) nurtures affection for hotsy colleague Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who’s involved with sullen womanizer Andy (Paul Rudd). Arts-and-crafts counselor Gail (Molly Shannon) weeps over her failed marriage and is consoled by preternaturally mature camper Aaron (Gideon Jacobs). Entertainment counselors Susie (Amy Poehler, a massively quirky talent in full eruption here) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) try to whip the campers into shape for the talent show. Victor (Ken Marino) is obsessed with returning from a rafting trip in time to get it on with Abby (Marisa Ryan). Camp cook and ‘Nam vet Gene (Christopher Meloni) has an intense relationship with a can of mixed vegetables. Oh, and a piece of Skylab is threatening to fall right on top of the camp’s rec room.

Sounds…weird. Brilliantly so. It’s got its share of toilet/sex humor, but it also has some wonderfully left-field stuff. I laughed heartily throughout. Examples: Andy’s yeah-whatever approach to lifeguarding. The way David Hyde Pierce — a true hero of subtle dry comedy — delivers a single word, “dinner.” (It’s hilarious in context. I about peed laughing.) Everything Chris Meloni (better known to some as the duplicitous, love-struck con Keller on HBO’s Oz) does, especially the New Way montage. The Crate and Barrel gag. Janeane Garofalo with moussed hair. The “White people be funny” kid in the talent show. Lines — the script is full of them — like “You taste like a burger. I don’t like you any more.” The debauched montage in town. The big, trite softball championship scene. Truth is, the movie is on wheels right from the uncannily accurate opening credits.

If it’s so sharp and funny, why didn’t it get a wider release? Good question. It wasn’t given nearly enough of a push by its distributor, USA Films, and the mostly uncomprehending reviews (especially Roger Ebert’s annoying non-review) didn’t help. It wasn’t as straightforward as, say, American Pie 2. The ’80s nostalgia thing had been tapped out not long after The Wedding Singer, and the poster art made it look too much like Detroit Rock City (another worthwhile retro comedy audiences stayed away from in droves). This was always more or less destined to be a cult comedy, passed along enthusiastically on video/DVD. (And the DVD has some cool extras — the “Behind the Scenes” featurette is worth a spin just for the actors’ off-the-cuff in-character synopses of their lives ten years later. Paul Rudd’s is especially funny.)

WHAS was pretty much too smart for the mainstream room. It’s subversive; it doesn’t take the expected beats (either that or it satirically turns them on their heads — see the final conversation between Coop and Katie, a most unconventional note for a comedy to end on), it cheerfully approves of same-sex love (it deftly feints towards homophobia only to turn that on its head), and it teases the boys in the audience with cheesecake but never stoops to full nudity. This is a wildly funny essay on the comedies I, and maybe you, grew up with on cable in the early ’80s. It also works admirably as a comedy in its own right — it’s not a “you had to be there” scrapbook, though the appearance of only-in-the-’80s toys like Merlin will keep Gen-Xers happily chortling. It doesn’t overdose on pop-culture references, either — none of the young campers talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was pretty much the movie to see that summer among kids of that age (including me, back there in ’81).

The movie’s weirdest touch by far: The talent show’s MC, Alan Shemper, who’s brought on as if he were some half-forgotten real-life TV personality (like, say, Charles Nelson Reilly) we should recognize. And if you ransack your memory looking for childhood afternoons spent in front of the tube watching Alan Shemper, you’ll go nuts. In fact, he’s Michael Showalter in a disguise good enough to make you pause for a second — “Is that a real comedian from the ’70s and ’80s? Should I know him?” But since that is exactly the spot where a lesser movie would insert a surprise “Oh yeah, I remember that guy!” cameo, it just makes the comedy that much stranger…

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, cult, one of the year's best

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