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May 1, 2014

Wet Hot American Summer

by Franz Patrick


Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
★★ / ★★★★

It is the last day of Camp Firewood which means that the camp director, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), and her camp counselors must endure one more day of trying to overcome their feelings for one another. Geeky Coop (Michael Showalter) is finally noticed by salacious Katie (Marguerite Moreau). The only problem is she’s still seeing scatter-brained Andy (Paul Rudd), currently eyeing blonde Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) like a hawk.

Meanwhile, Victor (Ken Marino), known as the stallion of the bunch, looks forward to having sex with sexually unrestrained Abby (Marisa Ryan). Incidentally, he is forced by Beth to take some of the kids to go water rafting, which is a couple of hours away from camp. Beth, too, is attracted to someone, an astrophysicist named Henry (David Hyde Pierce) who later volunteers to entertain the “indoor kids” to impress her.

Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain, “Wet Hot American Summer” is riotously funny when the jokes work but extremely frustrating and annoying when they do not. The characters are supposed to be stereotypes of camp counselors in the movies of the ‘80s so the comedy must be judged on how and if they are used wisely in order to pull off a biting satire. Like reaching into a bag marbles, some are shiny and some are quite dull.

Beth is wonderful as a leader who is required to be everywhere at once. Despite her share of awkward quirks, I believed that she is functional enough to successfully manage the place. But the characters who have only sex on the brain are consistently hit-and-miss.

For instance, the dizzying dance between Coop and Katie goes absolutely nowhere. Every time they share the same frame, I wanted to see more of Andy’s amusing negligence whenever he is around other women. One of the more entertaining scenes involves a kid almost drowning in the lake because Andy is too busy shoving his tongue down a girl’s throat. Coop and Katie do have one funny scene, however, which involves trading clothes while sitting in a barn. The cheesiness of the whole thing is supposed to make us groan because movies from the past try to convince us that wearing someone’s piece of clothing is romantic. It is not romantic when the other person has lice or crabs.

I wished that McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben (Bradley Cooper), gay lovers, had more scenes together. I felt like a lot of the jokes that could have stemmed from the homosexual relationship are held back out of political correctness. The picture does not need to be sensitive especially when it is supposed to be a satire. On the contrary, it must be merciless. I had a similar reaction with the way the attraction between the crafts teacher (Molly Shannon) and one of her students (Gideon Jacobs) is handled

To my surprise, the student-teacher attraction ends up being my favorite “relationship” in the film. It is so wrong yet so hilarious. It is both a shame and a missed opportunity that the screenplay chooses to shy away from polemical topics in order to make room for comedy that is easier to digest.

“Wet Hot American Summer,” directed by David Wain, needs to recognize its strengths and play upon them. Extraneous scenes that are downright stupid and unfunny like characters running from one room to another, screaming, and knocking down breakable objects on purpose need to be excised. In scenes like that, what exactly is being satirized—the writers running out of ideas?

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