Minute for minute, joke for joke, Wet Hot American Summer is the funniest movie in a decade. Created by two members of the 1990s sketch comedy troupe The State, David Wain and Michael Showalter, the movie picks up the mantle where that show left off. Like The State, Wet Hot American Summer is a movie that manages to function both as a celebration of lowbrow humor and a sly commentary on lowbrow humor.
The Story (Sort Of)
The movie, a spoof of late-'70s/early-'80s summer camp comedies, tells multiple stories set on the last day at the fictional Camp Firewood in 1981. Nerdy Coop (Showalter) is in love with pretty Katie (Marguerite Moreau), but she's dating the arrogant and too-cool Andy (Paul Rudd). Victor (State alum Ken Marino) wants to hook up with a girl, but is being forced to take the campers out rafting. McKinley (Michael Ian Black, yet another State member) and Ben are hiding their homosexual romance. Counselor Gail (Molly Shannon) is dealing with a break-up from her husband by getting some therapy during arts and crafts time. Bossy Susie (Amy Poehler) is trying to make sure the camp talent show goes off without a hitch. Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) has to find a way to let astrophysicist Henry (David Hyde Pierce) that she likes him, but has no idea how to do it. And Skylab is about to fall on the camp, threatening to kill everyone.
There's really no way to accurately describe what makes Wet Hot American Summer so funny. It's partly a healthy dose of absurdist humor -- there's a real "see what sticks" mentality to the movie, which isn't afraid to try anything for a laugh. Take, for example, Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) as the camp's deranged cook, who hides a series of bizarre fetishes ("I'm gonna go fondle my sweaters...") and communicates best with a can of vegetables.
It's partly how accurately the movie skewers the cliches of early-'80s gross-out comedies. Scenes like Showalter's "training" montage or a speech leading up to the "big game" with the rival camp provide some of the movie's biggest laughs, but they're nothing compared with the best scene -- a montage of a day trip into "town" that quickly goes horribly awry.
There are lots of folks who won't find any of this funny. This movie isn't for them. But for those of us in tune with Wain's sensibilities, Wet Hot is endlessly quotable and consistently brilliant. Though it may seem, on the surface, to be little more than an exercise in stupidity, writing it off as such would be missing the point. The movie is a celebration of stupidity, but also of absurdism and romance and youth and Dungeons and Dragons and science and cheesy rock music and so much more.
More Than Meets the Eye
And, yet -- and maybe this is me looking for substance where I shouldn't be -- the movie also has a genuine sweetness to it. It has real affection for the genre it's spoofing. It likes its characters, geeky as they are (actually, I would argue we like the characters because they are geeky, not in spite of it), and wants them to find love and happiness.
Even the final moments manage to make a statement that borders on sentimentality. A shot of the camp, littered with trash and now empty at the end of summer, suggests the end of a more innocent time (both for teenagers and for movies, when audiences could be entertained with these kinds of summer camp toss-offs). Slowly, the age of irony would be ushered in, rendering the films that Wet Hot is spoofing obsolete -- and, at the same time, setting the stage that would make both The State and Wet Hot American Summer possible. How's that for irony?
Original Release Date: April 11, 2002