By Drew Morton | Underappreciated Gems | July 23, 2009 |
By Drew Morton | Underappreciated Gems | July 23, 2009 |
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?
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.