The New Cult Canon: Wet Hot American Summer

The New Cult Canon: Wet Hot American Summer

A certain amount of audience flattery goes into a spoof. Spoofs make audiences laugh in part because they feel in the know for getting whatever reference is being thrown out there for ridicule. More often than not, these references tend to be too obvious and pandering, and in the worst cases, spoof filmmakers don't even bother crafting much of a gag about them; they merely want to congratulate viewers for being hip to the source material ostensibly being parodied. That's why the cottage industry of Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer spoofs like Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet The Spartans is the worst thing going in comedy right now: Winking at the audience for picking up on nods to 300, Meet The Parents, Pirates Of The Caribbean, and other such obscurities is about as base as it gets.

Wet Hot American Summer flatters its audience just like any other spoof, but the fact that its targets are so narrow and particular makes it perversely inspired. Here's a movie from 2001 that doesn't concern itself with yesterday's box-office hits, but with a sub-sub-genre of comedies from the late '70s to the mid-'80s, starting with Meatballs and its sequel, and including other disreputable standards like the TV movie Poison Ivy (with Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon), SpaceCamp, and the non-gory scenes in their slasher cousins like Friday The 13th and Sleepaway Camp. But it doesn't stop there: WHAS is pitched specifically to Reagan-era latchkey kids who grew up watching these movies on television, and have a certain generalized nostalgia about the fashions, hairstyles, graphical elements, and other minutiae that seeped into their wood-paneled family rooms. Moreover, the film also speaks to a generation of middle-class Jewish boys and girls whose parents shipped them off to summer camp for one or two months at a time. So if you're a middle-class Jew who came of age in the early '80s, watched a lot of television, and are given to nostalgia for misspent youth, Wet Hot American Summer is the movie for you. Little wonder that the film grossed $300,000 in theaters while the likes of Date Movie made close to $50 million.

But such is often the nature of a cult movie: What doesn't appeal to many appeals greatly to a self-selected few, and you can count me among Wet Hot's giddy acolytes. The film had me at hello: The opening credit sequence, with its bubble-letter fonts and freeze-frames, are a time capsule loaded with the outdated styles of yesteryear—feather-cuts and tight perms, midriffs and ass-hugging cut-off jeans on men, cotton bikini-tops and plunging necklines on women. And then there's the brilliant score, by Craig Wedren and Theodore Shapiro, featuring pump-you-up synth lines and hot licks that lend themselves to embarrassing bouts of air guitar and French kissing at its least refined. There are gags aplenty tossed around in the film, not all of them funny, but its bedrock value lies mainly in its obsessive, overwhelming period detail; if you aren't happy enough just lounging around in the ambience, the episodic, hit-or-miss comedy could make for a bumpy ride.

Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain, and directed by Wain—part of the brain trust behind the MTV sketch-comedy series The StateWet Hot American Summer takes place on the last day at Camp Firewood in mid-August, 1981. At this late stage in the season, the rules have slackened to the point where adolescent boys and girls are sneaking into each other's cabins for all-night snogging sessions, and the teenage camp counselors are too apathetic or defeated to do anything about it. (Having actors clearly in their mid- to late 20s or older playing counselors in their late teens is one of many sly comments on camp-movie conventions.) But still, the last day is the culmination of many subplots that have been in play all summer long: the big game against the snooty rival camp, the big talent show, and a multitude of possible hookups that have to happen now or never.

There's precious little to give the movie any kind of structure. Outside of the talent show—which features such dazzlements as a boy who can balance a broom on his palm, a musty old Catskills comedian, a performance of Godspell's "Day By Day," and a camp nerd with mysterious powers—the only pressing third-act issue is a piece of Skylab falling from space. Most of the other subplots are romantic, like the shy courtship between hippie-dippie camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and mustachioed astrophysicist Henry (David Hyde Pierce), and a love triangle involving the comely Katie (Marguerite Moreau), her moody superstud boyfriend Andy (Paul Rudd), and the inexperienced Coop (Showalter), who's given to painfully earnest proclamations like the following:

The clip above is an example of the movie spinning off from its summer-camp premise and into other territory, but it's also a prime example of how the film repeatedly goofs with clichés. The scene reminds me a little of a favorite Onion headline: "Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested." Wain and Showalter are wise to the eye-rolling conventions of the movies, and they trust that the audience will be knowing enough to snicker at the type of monologue that sounds romantic, but is in fact creepy bordering on pathological. (Not sure what my favorite part of that speech is: The bit about Katie sometimes being late for shul, or the promise to "hold her and provide for her," which are not the words many free-spirited teenage girls long to hear.) But the best inside-the-machinery moment—and one that relates more directly to the camp-movie genre—brilliantly unpacks all those "big game" finales that pit the slobs versus the snobs. And once again, it's Showalter's Coop who delivers the goods:

Within the framework of a spoof, Wet Hot American Summer branches out into little character bits and odd tangents that sometimes relate to Meatballs knock-offs and summer-camp experiences in general, or are just random silliness for its own sake. That catch-as-catch-can style is rooted in sketch comedy and improv, and it risks a little unevenness in order to score some bigger, less expected laughs. The strategy mostly pays off: For all the subplots I could have done without, like Molly Shannon as an emotionally brittle Arts & Crafts teacher who turns to her students for counsel, there are untold dozens of funny non sequiturs (like the kids who "want to watch The China Syndrome again") and inspired minor turns, like a 'Nam-damaged chef (Christopher Meloni) who learns to embrace his weird sexual peccadilloes after conversing with a can of mixed vegetables.

Wet Hot American Summer was dismally received by the majority of critics at the time (EW's Owen Gleiberman, Newsweek's David Ansen, and um, us excepted), with many balking at its loose-to-nonexistent structure, its curious fetish for the most trivial of cinematic subgenres, and, well, a failure to make them laugh. If you don't find the film funny, you don't find it funny—comedy is subjective, after all. (And hey, there's no accounting for taste.) But those other supposed liabilities are probably the film's greatest assets, and they complement each other nicely: Having a loose structure gives Wain, Showalter, and the rest of the cast a lot of freedom to scribble around in the margins, yet the whole enterprise is anchored by its obsessive fetishization of the period. There's something oddly satisfying about the sheer volume of '80s bric-a-brac on display here—the Trapper Keeper folders, the Pepsi Light cans with the peel-back can tops, the vintage soundtrack contributions from the likes of Loverboy, Rick Springfield, and Jefferson Starship. Or even the silly ways "cool" manifested itself at the time, like Paul Rudd's hilariously petulant lothario, or Ken Marino's preening, swaggering, secretly virginal skirt-chaser.

And oh, the montages. Cheesy montage sequences accomplished so much in the '80s—they transformed a wimp from Jersey into the Karate Kid, got Rodney Dangerfield through his oral exams in Back To School, and increased the power of space lasers in Real Genius—and they work their magic on several occasions here. As much as I appreciate a montage where the chef shows Coop "the way"—set to the inspirational strains of "Higher And Higher"—there's something special about the sequence where Beth and her fellow counselors drive into town for a wild hour. It's a montage that's really about montages, which says everything that needs to be said about how this infectiously self-conscious film operates.

Coming up:

Next week: The Boondock Saints (with special guest, Overnight)

June 27: Punch-Drunk Love

Camp Month

July 3: Wild Things

July 10: Road House

July 17: Manos: The Hands Of Fate vs. Troll 2

July 24: Showgirls