Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

I never went to a sleepaway camp as a kid. When I was little I went to our town's camp for a couple weeks every summer, and in middle school I would go to a theater camp I eventually would be a counselor for in high school, but those were all day camps. The only experience with an overnight camp that I have is second-hand stories from my cousins and my sister. But you don't need to go to camp to appreciate Wet Hot American Summer, though a familiarity with summer camp movies probably helps.

Along with Pootie Tang, which was released in the same year and is way better than it's reputation, Wet Hot American Summer is probably one of the weirdest comedies to get to theaters in the 2000's. A parody of movies like Meatballs and Indian Summer, Wet Hot follows the teen counselors, played by a cast clearly far older then the characters, as they navigate through their last day at Camp Firewood. The movie had a fizzling 30 theater run, where it made little money and was released to overwhelmingly negative reviews, but became a cult classic based on it's considerable pedigree. Much of the cast and writers come from the amazing MTV sketch comedy show The State, as well as appearances by lots of future comedy stars, including Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Marino, H. Jon Benjamin, and Christopher Meloni, who's not really a comedy star unless you think Law and Order: SVU is a wacky farce.

Director David Wain, who would later co-create Children's Hospital on adult swim, is in full alt-comedy mode here. Wet Hot American Summer was part of a wave in absurdest comedy films, movies with a heavy parody elements very willing to break from reality in service to the jokes. Austin Powers, Anchorman, and the Scary Movie series are all examples of this type of film, and it would be the prevalent form of Hollywood comedy until Judd Apatow and The 40 Year Old Virgin changed that. These movies tend to follow the Mel Brooks and Zuckers Bros. mode of comedy, where you throw everything at the wall and hope what sticks is stronger then what doesn't. They don't have an internal logic to them, everything is done with a wink and a smile. When done wrong, it's one of the worst type of movie out there, and if you don't believe me go watch Epic Movie. But when done just right the results are sublime, and Wet Hot is a great example of this.

The movie doesn't really focus on one character or even one group of characters, choosing instead to play out lots of mini-plots that come in and out of the movie. The main thread of the film follows Coop's (played by co-writer Michael Showalter) attempts to win over Katie (Marguerite Moreau) even though she's going out with the cheating abrasive jerk Andy (Paul Rudd, in what may be his funniest performance). Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) is similarly stricken by astrophysics professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce), whom she convinces to teach a bunch of nerdy kids for the day. Camp stud Victor (Ken Marino) wants to have sex with camp slut Abby (Marisa Ryan) but is forced to take campers on a river rafting trip instead. Susie and Ben (Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper) are putting on a talent show, and the students can't keep up to their high standards. Gary and J.J. (A.D. Miles and Zak Orth) are trying to hook up their friend McKinley (Michael Ian Black) with a girl without realizing he's in a romantic relationship with Ben. And so forth and so forth.

But really the movie isn't about plot, it's about moments. The film doesn't really care that much about it's characters or their personal arcs, it's a well greased machine with the sole purpose of making you laugh. If this movie wasn't funny it would fall apart like a house of cards. Luckily for us it is hilarious. Like, seriously laugh-out-loud-quote-with-your-friends-just-thinking-about-it-makes-you-giggle hilarious. One of those things that to describe it doesn't really do it justice. But I'll try anyway.

By taking a surreal random approach to the material, the film is able to go onto weird random tangents most movies wouldn't consider. Camp cook Gene (Christopher Meloni) having a conversation with a can of mixed veggies who can suck his own dick (H. Jon Benjamin) shouldn't work for a variety of reasons. It sounds like a Family Guy joke, where offensiveness and audaciousness overrule actually having a point. It works in spades though. The movie plays everything absolutely straight. There are meta jokes throughout, like a scene where they decide the big baseball game against a rival camp is a little too cliche, but nobody ever acknowledges they're in a movie. No winking at the camera, that's just how the world of the movie works.

Admittedly, not everything works. The usually funny Molly Shannon is stuck in a pretty unfunny subplot about her fighting with her ex husband and then marrying a 10 year old. It drags on and on and doesn't really go anywhere or produce that many good lines. But that's a quibble in what is otherwise an absolutely hilarious movie.

In possibly the best scene in the movie, Beth has to go into town and some of the counselors tag along. In a glorious montage to Rick Springfield's "Love is Alright Tonite", the gang first does wholesome things like eating McDonalds and visit the library. As the scene goes on, it begins to get darker, with the campers smoking, drinking, getting crack, beating up old ladies for cash, and eventually being hold up in a junkie's apartment, addicted to heroin, convulsing on the floor. Cut to the truck pulling back into camp, with everybody clean and smiling inside, wit J.J. proclaiming "It's great to get away from camp, even if it's only for an hour!" That scene sums up the humor for this movie, darkly funny extremes followed immediately by everybody forgetting so they can move on to the next thing. On the Wicker Scale Wet Hot American Summer is right near the top, well worth a watch.

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