Because the striped tube sock was simply too boss to stay away for long, Wet Hot American Summer has arrived to transport us back to the golden age of the summer camp comedy.
If that doesn’t sound like something you’d pay money to see, you’re not alone—and it won’t help when you find out what filmmakers David Wain and Michael Showalter are really up to.
Few fossilized film genres are as completely forgettable as the teen sex comedies that peppered theater screens in the late ’70s and early ’80s. From Little Darlings to Meatballs to countless others that made even less money, these pictures were studies in misguided crassness. Their production values were as adolescent as their characters, and they almost always included the retch-worthy sight of hairy-legged guys in sky-blue shorts that ended just below the crotch.
They were over-the-top, painfully unhip, unintelligible garbage—and that’s exactly why director Wain and star/co-writer Showalter, the guys behind MTV’s The State, chose them for hip revisionist feature-film glory. Being a kind of parody already, summer camp comedies provide a grossly inelegant target for more parody. But as anybody who watched The State knows, awkward equals funny to these guys.
The State was essentially one long Kids in the Hall episode, only without the talented actors. Wet Hot American Summer proves unfortunately similar to the show: intermittently funny, usually confusing, deliberately aloof from audience expectations, and often just sad in its inability to communicate with us. Wain and Showalter obviously are funny guys, but they refused to make a funny movie. Instead, they made a movie that’s trying ever so hard to be clever with a subject that doesn’t really compel or titillate anybody these days.
The film follows the adventures of the denizens of Camp Firewood, a Pennsylvania Jewish summer camp. Janeane Garofalo, whose career is listing perilously toward Penny Marshall territory, is the patient camp director. She’s got the hots for an astrophysicist (David Hyde Pierce) who lives nearby, but she’s also got her hands full with a kooky cast of characters in camp, including a crazy cook (Christopher Meloni) and a bunch of horny campers.
Wain and Showalter obviously thought the task to which they had appointed themselves—making a parody/homage to a movie genre that was already a profane, hyperactive, bull-in-a-china-shop imitation of cinema—was a mind-bender. Instead, it’s just limp and lifeless, a meandering hodge-podge of sight gags, recurring jokes and more switches in comic tone than open-mic night down at Laughs-a-Poppin’. It’s slapdash comedy, with a bunch of sketches pasted together into a pastiche of pubescent goofs that sometimes work and usually don’t.
Actually, the best bit of parody in Wet Hot American Summer is its title. In four words, the filmmakers accomplish the task at which they essentially fail for the rest of the picture. The title achieves the perfect mix of brain-dead fun, misplaced humor and creepy sexual malice of these movies, whereas the film amounts to Wain’s fragmented comic vision. Some of the details work—Meloni is fairly funny with his Bill Murray homage, and Pierce gets to utter an immortal line of chagrin—but the big picture is woefully inadequate.
By the time the film delivers a fairly canny ending, most viewers will have already checked out and headed for home. Next time, perhaps Wain and Showalter will turn their talents to something worth their attention. Maybe it’ll turn out they have no talents. Either way, they’ll probably look back on Wet Hot American Summer with the same lack of interest moviegoers exhibited for the movies they decided to parody.
Wet Hot American Summer (R) HH Directed by David Wain. Starring Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce and Michael Showalter.