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Wet Hot American Summer / Drew Morton

Pajiba Blockbusters | July 23, 2009 | Comments (35)


As Stacey noted recently in “Pajiba Love,” the MTV cult sketch-comedy show “The State” (1993-1995) made its long-awaited appearance on DVD last week. Having seen a few episodes via bootlegs, I was more than eager to place them into my Netflix queue. When I was struck with a delivery status of “Very Long Wait,” I cursed the Netflix Gods and decided to pop in “State” member David Wain’s directorial debut Wet Hot American Summer (2001). The film, one of my favorite comedies, was what introduced me to the those cloudy bootlegs and cued my anticipation and interest in “Reno 911!” (2003-), “Stella” (2005), and the recent series “Michael & Michael Have Issues” (2009-), which began on Comedy Central last week.

The film is a send up to camp ground (not campy) comedy such as Meatballs (1979) and covers the mishaps of the inhabitants of the predominantly Jewish Camp Firewood, located in the northeast as nearly all of them attempt to seek love or a bang on their last day. This basic premise provides the through line for the bulk of the characters and their relationships with the objects of their affection. This trope is presented rather stereotypically in the love-triangle between the timid and loveable Coop (Michael Showalter), the sexy and unavailable Katie (Marguerite Moreau), and Katie’s jackass boyfriend Andy (Paul Rudd), who has his eyes on Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). Wait…isn’t that a love-square? Anyhow, you’re beginning to get the set-up which finds many variations in the hands of screenwriters Showalter and Wain. Sexual desire underlies all of the relationships at Camp Firewood, be it between the camp’s counselor (Janeane Garofalo) and a physics professor who lives next to the camp (David Hyde Pierce), two closeted camp counselors (Michael Ian Black and Bradley Cooper), a young camper (Gideon Jacobs), the arts and crafts instructor (Molly Shannon), and the camp’s chef (Christopher Meloni) and…himself. As you have probably noticed, not only do the relationships get less and less traditional, but there isn’t much of a plot to be found in the film. Sure, there’s a danger of some campers going over a waterfall on a rafting trip and the threat of SkyLab crashing down upon the camp, but those only serve as comedic set-ups.

Some of these set-ups are more effective and have a greater payoff than others. Coop’s feeble attempts to reign in Katie climax in mind and body training session with Gene, the chef I alluded to previously — complete with the climactic mock-rock track “Higher and Higher” by the film’s composer Craig Wedren — is one of my favorite moments of the film. Hell, any moment that the sexually uncomfortable Gene is on the screen is pants-pissing hilarious. Take, for instance, this dialogue between Gene, a former Vietnam vet, and one of his underlings:

GENE: Now, we need to make 8 gallons of bug juice by snack hour. Do you know where the powder packets are?
GARY: Yeah.
GENE: In the pantry, above the sink, right next to my bottle of dick cream… Uh, wait, forget that last part.
GARY: Did you say dick cream?
GENE: No! I said next to my… stick… team, you know, stick team! Stickball! Go away, leave me alone!

Traditionally known for his dramatic work in “Oz” (1997-2003) and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (1999-), Meloni makes use of that experience to his benefit, playing Gene as a highly repressed and tightly wound individual and it makes for some of the best lines in the film.

If my focus is primarily on Meloni’s work, it is not to sell the rest of the cast short. Most of the actors are given their comedic highlight, be it Paul Rudd’s Andy covering up the death of a camper or telling Lindsay that he doesn’t like her anymore because she tastes “like a burger” or the awkward flirting of Showalter, who wholeheartedly tries to tell Moreau that he wants her inside him. How might that work? Yet, this abundance of characters inhabiting a world that we only spend ninety minutes with does have its casualties. For instance, Bradley Cooper, now a rising star from his work in The Hangover (2009), and Michael Ian Black reach a climatic moment, which is oddly touching, but are given little else. Amy Poehler, one of the first ladies of comedy, is also slighted on screen time.

The main reason I mention this is because I feel these characters could have been accommodated with a revised third-act. Quite simply, after the first hour, Wet Hot American Summer starts to get messy. This is primarily because Showalter and Wain, for some reason outside of my knowledge, felt the need to throw together some semblance of a plot to give the characters something to do, namely save endangered campers after they’ve neglected them all summer (“McKinley, there are some lower campers stuck in the obstacle course. I meant to tell you about that yesterday, but could you get to it now?”). I’m not trying to rag on the movie, as I obviously have a disclosed affection for it. I’m simply lamenting the moment that SkyLab shows up and the wheels begin to fall off the cart because so much more could have been done with the cast and 30 minutes worth of screen time.

Despite the film’s slight missteps in the final act, it is, for better and worse, the best feature film to come out of David Wain. His follow up, The Ten (2008), revolved around comedic re-enactments of the Ten Commandments. While some of the ten vignettes were quite good, such as “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods” and “Thou Shall Not Steal,” the hit to miss ratio weighed much more towards the latter. Wain’s last film, Role Models (2008), was a step in the right direction, if not because of the casting of the hilarious child actor Bobb’e J. Thompson (the scene where he and Seann William Scott, discuss Kiss’s “Love Gun” is gold). My best advice to people suffering from the wrath of the Netflix Gods when it comes to their copy of “The State” is to take a trip to visit (or revisit) Camp Firewood. Just make sure you don’t stop in town on the way, or you might find yourself in Trainspotting (1996).

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.









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Comments

You know, I heard so many great things about this movie and I finally got it off Netflix and was very underwhelmed. It had some occasional laughs scattered here and there, but it mainly it was a mess and given the level of talent involved it really could have and should have been much, much better.

Mediocre at best.

Posted by: Forbiddendonut at July 23, 2009 3:16 PM

This is a great write up. In fact, I enjoyed reading this way more than I enjoyed the actual movie. That's right, my name is tbean, and I hate the movie Wet Hot American Summer.

I previously read of its brilliance here, and I have many friends that adore this movie, so I thought I would love it. But, when I finally sat down to watch it a couple of weeks ago, I intensely disliked it. I swear I am not an idiot or a jackass with no sense of humor. I just didn't like it and didn't find it funny. Please don't hate me.

Posted by: tbean at July 23, 2009 3:17 PM

Forbiddendonut beat me to it and said it much better. I'm so glad I'm not alone!

Posted by: tbean at July 23, 2009 3:19 PM

In high school I forced my two best friends to watch it. They both thought it was horrible, and I thought about getting new friends. (I didn't, but I did have the thought.) It went over a lot better for my fellow Yiddish interns.

"The campers you are about to see suck dick! Nevertheless, please welcome them."

Posted by: foursweatervests at July 23, 2009 3:24 PM

@Forbiddendonut and @tbean

"Mediocre at best." So true.

I tried to like it, but I couldn't. Not one bit.

Posted by: Colin at July 23, 2009 3:27 PM

I think there's a lot of great moments and great lines in this movie, but as a whole I wasn't as enamored as some of my friends.

Posted by: Julie at July 23, 2009 3:37 PM

Oh, bork. That shot of simultaneous facial-laving made me spontaneously unjaculate. Twice.

Posted by: ahamos at July 23, 2009 4:00 PM

I met David Hyde Pierce in New York. When my friend and I inquired about a WHAS sequel, he told us that if there was enough interest he'd definitely be up for it.

While I genuinely felt excited about a sequel to what is possibly my favorite comedy, that was in 2005 and I've yet to put together or even sign any kind of petition...

No one's got a swell cleft in his chin like Hyde Pierce.

Posted by: ShagEaredVillain at July 23, 2009 4:02 PM

spontaneously unjaculate

Wow... I ... how does that work, exactly? I just got quite the excruciating visual, let me tell you. It somehow involved Skittimus Minimus.

Posted by: Anna von Beaverplatz at July 23, 2009 4:15 PM

The only way to like this movie that I've discovered is to be subjected to repeated viewings with others who love it. And copious amounts of booze. We're talking bacchanal levels, here.

Posted by: branded at July 23, 2009 4:24 PM

Wow, Bubblegumshoe and I just saw this movie last night (because we liked Role Models and Michael Ian Black). And here it is being reviewed just 18 hours later. I never get the chance to comment on a review with actual knowledge of the movie on hand.

I tend to agree with the reviewer. This movie was hard to get into at first because the tone was really jarring until you got a feel for it (Paul Rudd's horrible overracting, the debouchery of the trip into town, throwing children out of a moving vehicle).

Once you got adjusted to it and just appreciated the craziness and the characters (hell of a cast) it was an enjoyable comedy. I was surprised it was made in the last decade because it really felt more like circa 1981 Harold Ramis (I realize that was the point).

And yeah, the last half hour started to fall into the trap that so many comedies do where they abandon the free-form riffing and random character-based jokes in order to devote more time to completing some meaningless contrived story arc. I really appreciated the way they handled the Big Game, too bad they caved in here.

At least they gave us the speech by Katie to Coop at the end.

Posted by: Yossarian at July 23, 2009 4:26 PM

You all suck. This movie's awesome.
*skipping off to go watch the rest of my The State DVDs...*

Posted by: jamiepants at July 23, 2009 5:27 PM

I think The Ten would have been 10 times the movie it was, had Paul Rudd not been involved. He shines in Wet Hot, the scene in which he throws his tray across the empty cafeteria only to be caught be Garafalo kills me everytime, but lately he's been on the verge of "douche schnozzle". It's as if he's realized the street cred he's gained and wants to rest easy on the "he looks like such a nice guy" rep.

I Love You Man caused involuntariy vomitting and I barely made it through the trailers. The Diggers was one of the worst movies I've seen in my life. The Ten is fantastic, it's just sullied by Rudd's crap.

Posted by: Brian at July 23, 2009 6:03 PM

The first time I saw it, I really didn't get why people thought Wet Hot American Summer was so funny. But when I was studying abroad in college, it was one of about ten movies my friends and I had (It was Ireland, I was in a smallish town, it rained a lot, and despite what people say, you can only spend so many hours a day and so much money in pubs...so we watched a lot of tv and movies. But don't get me wrong, I love Ireland and that year was one of the best times of my life...anyway) SO we watched Wet Hot American Summer about 200 times. It just gets funnier and funnier the more times you watch it. There are a lot of subtle moments that you miss in the first viewing, and it has so many great lines. My personal favorite, (which was personally referred to above) "You taste like burger, I don't like you anymore."

Posted by: ami at July 23, 2009 6:15 PM

** partially referred to, not "personally"

Posted by: ami at July 23, 2009 6:16 PM

Some things were jarring and some jokes fell flat with me but I really enjoyed the feel of this movie. It reminded me of a mesh of Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Dazed and Confused. A good summer movie when you want a break from the Judd Apatow oeuvre.

Posted by: bubblegumshoe at July 23, 2009 6:19 PM

the sum of it's parts is less than it's parts.
the ingredients for this cake are nicer than the cake.

Admittedly Im failing to come up with the cliches to get my point across. Although it is an enjoyable film it is far more memorable for the specific parts ie. the higher and higher sequence and the two guys giving their gay friend a wedding present, than the overall film is memorable.

Might watch it now though.

Posted by: jim of the lower case at July 23, 2009 6:52 PM

Brian, watch yourself buddy.

Posted by: becks at July 23, 2009 7:08 PM

the awkward flirting of Showalter, who wholeheartedly tries to tell Moreau that he wants her inside him. How might that work?

It's called fisting. You could find someone in West Hollywood, WeHo to the native Angelenos, to show you the details.

Posted by: OscarTamerz at July 23, 2009 7:48 PM

I adore Wain's movies so much. Ugh. I actually thought the last half hour of Wet Hot American Summer was just as funny as, or possibly more funny than, the first hour. The whole thing with the rescue on the falls, the chase sequence. Super LOL.

Posted by: Christian H. at July 23, 2009 7:50 PM

I'm downloading it right now. (legally? you decide).

I've only ever seen it on Comedy Central, so I'm excited to see the difference. While I agree that some of the moments aren't knee-slapping funny, I love this movie for it's insanity. And you have to admit, the clothes are FABULOUS!

Posted by: tncunnin at July 23, 2009 8:07 PM

Love it, love the whole thing, bought the DVD and loved it with the fart track. Loved that it even had a fart track.

Showalter, who wholeheartedly tries to tell Moreau that he wants her inside him. How might that work?

Don't try to pretend you've never gotten, or at least wanted, a finger up the butt during a BJ.

Posted by: SaBrina at July 23, 2009 8:36 PM

I agree with the first commenter. I want to like the people involved, but the State (and to a slightly lesser degree Stella) just never really connected comedically. When you compare them to the really great sketch comedy shows they pale terribly by comparison. And like them, this movie was just OK.

Posted by: Uncle Mikey at July 23, 2009 9:11 PM

Even though I totally understand why people wouldn't like WHAS, it's still one of my favorite movies ever. Some people get it, some (...most) people don't, but sweet baby jesus does it bring me endless joy.

Although I do have to say, whether you hate the movie or not, if you don't laugh at the line "I can suck my own dick" (said by a can of vegetables), then that just makes me want to puke all over your head sir.

Posted by: canaux at July 23, 2009 9:20 PM

I didn't have cable growing up so never saw The State. I was first introduced to Wain et. al. through Stella which is super hilarious and has me laughing out loud all the time. I thought it was so original and was glad to have found this group of people. I try to follow their individual projects as well as anything where they are working together.

I also agree that WHAS does get funnier and funnier every time.

Posted by: Kelly Booth at July 23, 2009 11:03 PM

spontaneously unjaculate

Wow... I ... how does that work, exactly?.

Posted by: Anna von Beaverplatz at July 23, 2009 4:15
---
Same as spontaneously putting toothpaste back in your dick. Well, not YOUR dick ...

Posted by: , (the commenter formerly known as bucdaddy) at July 24, 2009 1:04 AM

Ken Marino running into a tree was fantastic.

I agree with ami that it improves with repeat viewings. It's the little things that make up the ridiculousness of the film. (For instance, when J.J. and Gary are trying to think of a girl to help "get McKinley laid," every girl they mention is named Debbie. All of them. Also, best secret handshake ever.)

"So that's what I'm about right now: sex. Specifically with Andy and not with you."

Posted by: elizabeth at July 24, 2009 8:26 AM

After years of hearing about it, TiVo randomly recorded it for me and I watched it a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was hilarious. I especially loved the one-hour trip into town, and Molly Shannon's character getting love advice and pep talks from her arts-and-crafts campers.

Some of it fell flat (the part where Janeane Garofalo tries to get fashion advice), but overall, I really enjoyed it.

Posted by: Wednesday at July 24, 2009 9:28 AM

I agree with those who said it's a film that gets better on repeated viewings. And that the best parts are the little things that you miss the first time around. I also find you HAVE to watch it with other people (other people who at least like it), it's one of those things I can never watch alone.

Posted by: Alice at July 24, 2009 10:33 AM

Wet Hot American Summer is fucking fantastic. There really shouldn't be a debate here. This is not a subjective statement, this real truth.

Posted by: DemonWaterPolo at July 24, 2009 1:19 PM

honestly, the best parts of this movie are the deleted scenes. As an intern on the set who was privy to the original script, I was incredibly disappointed with the final cut compared to some of the gems that wound up on the cutting room floor (like the David Wain & Kerry Kenney scene and Paul Rudd's bare bum). Also, if you care to know, Showalter was a total dick. I have not watched him in anything since for this reason. Everyone else was really nice tho, especially Ken Marino.

Posted by: snarla at July 24, 2009 1:50 PM

So not surprised to hear that about Showalter, snarla. I've seen him live twice, once at my school and once at a free USB show, and both times his entire attitude screamed "I am way too good to be here, you are all so lucky to be blessed by my presence." And he wasn't even fucking funny.

Same as spontaneously putting toothpaste back in your dick.

Putting toothpaste... back in your dick? You're telling me that creamy white substance that comes out of your dick will taste minty fresh and clean my teeth? I am not falling for that, especially not after that "Sprite" fiasco.

Posted by: SaBrina at July 24, 2009 8:42 PM

I was a camp counselor for years, so I thought this movie was hysterical AND mostly true. We never neglected kids that much but being a camp counselor was basically a full summer of soap opera drama about who was hooking up with whom, most of the campers were from prominent Jewish families in NYC and New Jersey, dealing with meals, laundry, luggage, "going into town" to get away from the kids. By the end of the summer I'd be totally sunburnt, covered in bug bites, once I had a double ear infection and a sore throat, and you only made about $2,000 for 8 weeks.

Posted by: scorzi at July 26, 2009 8:34 PM

I agree with the affection for WHAS in this review, but to imply that it is a stronger film than Role Models is folly. Folly, I say.

WHAS is funny, but little more than a series of loosely connected sketches. Role Models is as funny (if not funnier), but holds together much better as a story and actually has you invested in the characters.

FOLLY.

Posted by: Daniel Hall at July 26, 2009 10:19 PM

Narrative is overrated. Role Models was a mess, but watchable. The best scene was the Kiss pinball machine and description of "Love Gun." Since when does a film have to "hold together" or have to be more than "loosely connected sketches" to be acceptable?

Have you ever watched Jacques Tati's "Playtime"? It's exactly what you just described, anti-narrative, a string of sketches, and it's one of the best comedies I've ever seen. The better parts of WHAS are when it is sketches, held together by the fact that they all take place at the camp. The minute story takes over, well, it loses sight of gags for narrative.

I'm not trying to be a film snob, but sometimes its the films that break away from formula, even when they fail, that are ultimately more memorable and interesting the watch. "Role Models" is fine and a decent rental, but its largely forgettable.

Posted by: Drew Morton at July 27, 2009 12:53 AM





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