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Review: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Directed by: David Wain

Premise: Set in 1981, counselors at a summer camp enjoy the last day of the season.

What Works: Throughout the 1980s there was a trend of “one crazy summer” movies, often set at summer resorts. Most of these were comedies like Meatballs, Porky’s, Hardbodies, Summer Rental, Caddyshack, Ernest Goes to Camp, and National Lampoon’s Vacation as well as horror pictures like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp. After the box office success of American Pie in 1999 there was a nostalgic return to these movies and Wet Hot American Summer is the comedic equivalent of horror pictures like Scream, at once satirizing the clichés of the subgenre while simultaneously fulfilling them. Wet Hot American Summer is a strange movie, at times even bizarre, but its strangeness is what distinguishes it. The picture picks up on the eccentricities of 1980s comedies and it ranges from silly imitation to subversion. Wet Hot American Summer nails the look of the early 1980s in the clothes and set design but it also picks up on the cinematic styles seen in the movies that it imitates. In doing that Wet Hot American Summer lampoons the conventions of these stories and viewers familiar with Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Sleepaway Camp will recognize the clichés. The cast includes all the familiar character types: the geeky camp director, the anarchistic camp counselor, the psychotic cook, a skinny loner, and the fat side-kick. It also has the familiar scenarios: love triangles, social class conflicts, and frat house behavior. One of the major elements of those 1980s movies that the filmmakers of Wet Hot American Summer pick up on and undermine is their sexism and homophobia. Comedies of the 1980s had a pretty terrible regard for women and a lot of the humor was based on gay panic. Wet Hot American Summer addresses that. Being that the picture is set in 1981 the moviemakers stay true to the time period and exaggerate the sexuality of the characters in order to point out the absurdity. As a result the movie nearly plays like a run of the mill sex comedy but Wet Hot American Summer is smarter and more subversive than that. The filmmakers also pick up on the strange disregard for children in 1980s summer comedies. In movies like Meatballs the counselors are so busy with their own stories that they never spend any time with their campers. Again, Wet Hot American Summer exaggerates that with the children put in comic peril. There is an understated darkness to parts of the movie that is surprising but generally works in the picture’s favor. Another fun aspect of Wet Hot American Summer is its cast. The film includes several actors who went on to bigger things including Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Amy Poehler and there is a charm to seeing these performers early in their careers.

What Doesn’t: Over a decade has passed since the release of Wet Hot American Summer and three decades have passed since the release of many of the films it references. The allusions are bound to be lost on viewers who came of age after 1995 and contemporary audiences may not even realize that this is in fact a satire. As an imitation of the “one crazy summer” subgenre, Wet Hot American Summer suffers from some of the flaws of those pictures. Films like Meatballs and Caddyshack do not have much of a story; they are really a bunch of scenarios strung together by a thin narrative. The same is true of Wet Hot American Summer and much of it plays like a random collection of scenes. The filmmakers struggle to keep the laughs coming and in many ways the picture is more interesting as a satire of a filmmaking trend from a particular time period than as a comedy in its own right.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, featurettes, image galleries, cast and crew biographies, and trailers.

Bottom Line: The legacy of the 1980s summer-based comedy continues to be felt in movies like American Pie, Adventureland, and The Way Way Back. For those who are familiar with the movies it references, Wet Hot American Summer is an amusing satire. It’s unlikely to connect with younger viewers but for those who can appreciate it the movie is smart and even subversive. 

Episode: #451 (August 11, 2013)