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Home » Culture and Criticism

Wet Hot American Summer

Submitted by on June 11, 2008 – 8:52 AM25 Comments

It's not easy to review a movie you and your friends have been quoting from for so long, you've almost forgotten half the references even started there, but that's just what the Couch Baron's doing this morning with his write-up of Wet Hot American Summer. (He smells like a burger. I don't like him anymore.)

If you go in knowing nothing about this film, the opening scene might momentarily make you think you're in for an early-eighties teen-slasher flick. Guys boozing it up around a campfire while slutty big-boobed girls with no bras dance provocatively? Doesn't it seem like someone out there must want to kill them?

But no, the film is Michael Showalter and David Wain's brilliantly funny satire, set in 1981 on the last day of "Camp Firewood"'s season. The ensemble cast boasts a veritable embarrassment of comedy riches including, besides Showalter himself, his The State cohorts Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black (recently reunited in gay demon love on Reaper!), SNL talent Molly Shannon and Amy Poehler, and, among others, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofolo, Chris Meloni, David Hyde Pierce, and Bradley Cooper. On this fateful yet hilaaaarious day, gangly, earnest, and lovable Coop (Showalter) tries to tell Katie (Marguerite Moreau) about his feelings for her, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend, who's a jerky horndog (Rudd). Nerdy camp director Beth (Garofolo) finally gets up the courage to ask the local astrophysics professor (Pierce) out. And theater queens Ben and Susie (Cooper and Poehler) struggle to get the end-of-summer talent show in on time.

But it's the more twisted developments that are the funniest, whether it's arts-and-crafts teacher Gail (Shannon) finding love with one of her preteen students, camp cook and still-shell-shocked Vietnam vet Gene (Meloni) getting life advice from a can of vegetables, or degenerate counselor Andy (Rudd) negligently killing some of his kids and then, in a running gag, dumping the witnesses (one a young, dyed-blond Kyle Gallner of Veronica Mars fame) out of a moving van. As the writers' commentary on the deleted scenes shows, everyone involved in this movie is just sick and wrong, and we are the happy beneficiaries.

Summer Timeline: The film takes place almost exclusively over a single day, but the characters still have a lot to accomplish. I'm not talking about the fact that someone has to stop a piece of Skylab (still funny) from falling on the camp — that task is left to the nerds of the group, led by Pierce with an entertainingly different kind of bookishness from his pathologically superior Niles Crane. No, what's on everyone's mind is what's on every movie camper's mind — getting laid. More specifically, the pressure is on for everyone in camp to find someone with whom to hook up after the summer-culminating talent show, because, as the camp's self-proclaimed radio DJ tells us, "you don't want to go home and lie to your friends about a summer romance that didn't even happen." What's atypical, however, is that the biggest action in the film is boy-on-boy — Black and Cooper have a sex scene that's supposed to be funny, but actually plays kind of scorchingly. Hey, next time get ugly guys to do the parody.

Enviable Vacation Locale: As Showalter and Wain will be only too happy to tell you, it rained heavily for almost the entire shoot and was freezing cold besides, and if you look closely, you can tell. I'm not all that picky when it comes to summer vacations, but I draw the line at being able to see my own breath. Pass.

Quick-Burning Summer Romance: As mentioned earlier, there are several, all having something to offer, whether it's McKinley (Black) and Ben's hilariously spiritual commitment ceremony (watch for Garofolo trying not to laugh), Gail falling for the camper that helped her out with preternaturally mature relationship advice, or Victor (Marino) going on an overwrought odyssey to be with a girl who doesn't even remember his name. But the best part comes when Katie, after tearfully, touchingly, and clichédly telling Coop she loves him, goes back to asshole Andy the next day, because, as she puts it, "That's where my priorities are right now. Sex. Specifically with Andy and not with you. But you're really nice. I mean, everybody thinks so. And I'm sorry if this isn't the direction that you saw things going between us." The faces Showalter makes during this speech alone are worth the price of admission, but really, isn't this a more realistic development than the nerdy guy getting the hot girl?

High Comedy: With people this funny, you don't want to take your eyes off the screen for a minute, or you'll miss tidbits like the numerous pop-culture references (The Bad News Bears, Kung Fu, White Nights, and Platoon, among others, are all sent up), a kid unabashedly picking his nose while Coop looks soulfully forlorn about Katie and Andy, and Garofolo improv-ing names like "David Ben-Gurion" while running down the parental-pick-up list.

Most of the stuff is less blink-and-you'll-miss-it, though, including a montage (set to Rick Springfield) of some counselors getting high in a drug den and shaking off withdrawal all within an hour, and the entire camp acting like this comedian who just got off a bus from the Catskills (Showalter, again, made up and bewigged) is the most side-splittingly funny thing they've ever seen (Zak Orth gets a special mention for his over-the-top whooping it up). Some of the best lines include Garofolo's annoyed declaration to the camp: "I am not joking. I am not Ruth Buzzi standing here!" and a geeky camper responding to a taunt with this: "Douchebags are hygienic products. I take that as a compliment," as well as Andy referring to the writing in his composition notebook as his "gournal." You'll also appreciate the period details, including Marino's perm and cutoff shorts, and one of the kids playing that ubiquitous early-eighties game, Merlin. Whoever did props for this movie is my new hero.

DVD Extras: There's a cornucopia of stuff to be had here, including interviews with several cast members, twelve minutes of deleted scenes with and without commentary from Wain and Showalter, and, best of all, an extended version of the "Ten Years Later" scene that ends the film in which the actors give interviews in character to let us know how they turned out. Your reaction to Amy Poehler's offering in this section is probably a good indication of whether this film is for you: "My daughter Jessica is Little Miss Massachusetts, and my son Joe is retarded."

Worth The AC?: You have to ask?

Overall Suitability As A Summer Movie: A-plus

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25 Comments »

  • Natalie says:

    Thank you! I'm glad other people find the McKinley/Ben/Athletic Sock scene hot. I also find it really romantic and then I feel like an embarrassing softie since the movie is such high camp.

    I was actually just thinking the other day that Marguerite Moreau has the toughest job, since she's virtually the only straight man of the piece until her speech to Coop at the end. But maybe I'm thinking about this too hard.

  • Tiffany says:

    This is one of my favorite movies, and it features my favorite cinematic double-take EVER. (Thank you, Paul Rudd!)

  • bronte says:

    This sounds awesome. I've heard of it, but had in passing written it off as just another summer movie.

    Thanks
    Sars and the Couch Baron

  • Amie says:

    I share the love of this movie. I have the DVD, and I must say, it deserves a watching again now that summer is upon us!

  • smm says:

    This write-up is reminding me, WHAS is funnier than I remembered. I do believe this movie is how Paul Rudd was seen as a comic actor, rather than a failed rom-com lead. His hissy-fit in the cafeteria is frickin' glorious. And Meloni! We still bust out with "Eat the fucking corn!"

  • Annie says:

    Also the DVD extras include an alternate commentary track called "Extra Farts." I am giggling to myself just thinking about it. It is what it sounds like, but it is also more; somehow it gets more hilarious as it goes on (and on and on) and eventually includes other sound effects. This is what commentary tracks should be used for!

  • sw says:

    Gournal.

    So good.

  • Meloni is so brilliant in this movie (dick cream, fondling of sweaters, etc.), but the part that always makes me lose it is the prolonged chase sequence between Marino and Joe Lo Truglio, particularly when it heads into "the call was coming from INSIDE THE CAMP!" territory.

  • Holly says:

    The Craig Wedren music is one of the best things in a superlative movie. The training montage scene, people? "Show me the fever / into the fire / taking it higher and higher!"

    Sweet FSM, I love this film.

    "Now excuse me while I go fondle my sweaters."

  • Jenny 2 says:

    This is one of those movies that I've always heard raves about and yet never got around to seeing it. It's now at the top of my Netflix queue.

  • Julie says:

    I didn't get that the sex scene was supposed to be funny–I think they were going for hot (and got it…). I thought the point was that every cliched summer camp movie has a gratuitous sex scene, so they were turning it on it's ear by having that scene be with two guys. Two hot…sweaty…guys…

  • K. says:

    I first saw Meloni as Elliot Stabler, which is not at all a comedic role (unless the writers make him say something stupid, which they sometimes do) and then I saw him in Harold and Kumar and thought he was hilarious. I mentioned that to someone and they were like, "Oh, you should see Wet Hot American Summer, he's even funnier" so I did, and WOW, is he a riot. I love his "shutupleavemealone" when he would get caught saying pervy things, and his slow hump of the fridge alone is worth the price of admission.

    "Well, we made it through the summer in one piece. Except for a few campers who are lepers."

  • Maren says:

    Augh, I'd heard such great things about this movie for years and it's STUFFED with actors I adore, but I just didn't like it — and was totally depressed about that. I hate not loving things everyone else does. Maybe it stuck too close to the '80s movies it was mocking for my taste? I don't know, and I was willing to see "The Object of My Affection" just for Paul Rudd.

    (I also think a big part of my non-enjoyment was the fact that I never went to sleep-away camp. Sigh.)

  • Sandman says:

    "Well, we made it through the summer in one piece. Except for a few campers who are lepers."

    Well, now I have to see it.

  • Susie says:

    Thank you! I was hoping that you would include this in your "Twelve Days…" but thought you might not, since it's so obviously awesome, and doesn't really need the review. This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Our favorite line to quote?

    "I love how sometimes, for no reason, you're late for shule."

  • Deanna says:

    My cousin and I are super-tight and both have a thing for Christopher Meloni. Sometimes when we think the other might need to be randomly cheered up, we email each other and say "Fonduuuuuue with cheddar!" or "Are you ready to be shown the way?"

    Soooo glad we're not alone with the geekdom.

  • Stephanie says:

    @Alan: I love that chase scene too and especially the part in the nurse's station. The unabandoned destruction of everything, including Joe karate-chopping that lamp, kills me dead every time.

    I used to watch this with my old roommates and they loved it just as much as me. I just had to mention Paul Rudd throwing that temper tantrum in the cafeteria, and Jen would break into giggles. All of Paul Rudd's scenes are just fantastic though. His reaction shot when The New Coop arrives at the talent show is genius. The way he puts sunglasses on, for gosh sakes, makes me laugh.

    And just because it had to be said, "I need some lube… for my pussy."

  • JeniMull says:

    I've been wanting to see this movie since it came out. Now it's definitely going to happen.

  • Erin W says:

    In a weird coincidence, The AV Club featured this movie in today's "The New Cult Canon". http://www.avclub.com/content/feature/the_new_cult_canon_wet_hot

    I'll take this double recommendation as a single sign that I should finally see this thing.

  • solaana says:

    Like The Big Lebowski (arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrg…I hate starting sentences with a bunch of capitalized words!), it took multiple viewings for me to properly appreciate the awesomeness that is this movie. I'm really embarrassed to admit this, but I didn't get the gournal joke. I didn't get a lot of the jokes, actually, because I had an insanely filtered 80s experience, growing up overseas (i.e. Dukes of Hazard dubbed into German so that I didn't realize that they were Southern until the remake came out). Will watching it with commentary help clear some of that up?

  • Laura says:

    @Maren:
    Yeah, it seems that going to sleep-away camp helps your enjoyment quite a bit. The first I heard of it was from a bunch of college-age Boy Scouts who were camp staff. They considered it pretty much the greatest piece of film ever, and had dozens of inside jokes that I didn't get at all, because I had never even heard of the movie.
    I only went to day camp (the kind for science nerds, indoors), so my enthusiasm is much muted. I still don't get all the inside jokes.

  • Tanya says:

    I was holding my breath and hoping you would pick WHAS! best summer movie evah. I echo the other comments re: Paul Rudd slouching around the mess hall, what's his name humping the fridge, etc. and what about Michael Showalter's hilarious "Arts and farts and crafts" stand-up bit. Godspell…all of it. Gah…what about the bit where they go into town? And now I've got "even though we aint' got money…" running through my brain-pan.

  • meltina says:

    It's a really funny movie, but I will never see it again. Not because I wouldn't love to, but the last time I watched it with my husband he started repeating the "You know… For your pussy" joke constantly for months. Of all the throaway jokes…

  • Tara says:

    "By the way, I can suck my own dick."

  • josh says:

    "And I do it. A lot."

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