The Hype: Wet Hot American Summer

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Gunnar Bio PicEver since Buster Keaton gave us his revolutionary The General back in 1926, audiences and critics have afforded avant-garde comedies the confusion and hostile pity typically reserved for homeless street performers and the last five seasons of Two and a Half Men. When Wet Hot American Summer first appeared in the summer of 2001, it fared no better. A weak opening in less than thirty cities drew both tepid audience responses and polarizing critical reception (Roger Ebert was so famously disappointed with the film that his damning verdict took the form of a sarcastic tribute to Allan Sherman’s single “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”). Nobody seemed to know how to interpret the film; it was too dark and edgy to be a proper homage to summer camp films, and too silly and centrifugally unique to be a direct satire. Initially dismissed as a bizarre mistake, the film has gone on to receive a cult following so substantial that Netflix recently ordered an eight-episode prequel slated for July… a solid fourteen years after the original comedy’s awkward and underwhelming performance.

Hindsight being what it is, the film’s eventual success and critical appreciation comes as absolutely no surprise. Penned masterfully by David Wain and Michael wet hot american summerShowalter (the duo who would help create other innovative comedies such as The State and Stella), this offbeat piece of cinema, set in a summer camp circa 1981, boasts a cast that includes plenty of incredible talents back when they were virtually unknown, gifted marquee-regs like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, and Elizabeth Banks. As Apatow and Co. would so lovingly and successfully exploit in the latter part of the 2000’s premier decade, giving such a formidable ensemble enough freedom to gently roam off the reservation reveals an entertainingly strange and endearing chemistry between the actors that bubbles unabashed and unconstrained under every silly look and funny line of dialogue. The characters themselves provide no other purpose than to help catalyze plotpoints and gags, moving with little comedic viscosity from one scene to the next. Without the typical boundaries inherent in portraying believable characters, the cast is able to be anywhere Director Wain needs them: in a crack den, at a gay union, or in a cafeteria where one of the workers (played with cartoonish charm by Christopher Meloni) likes to fondle sweaters and hump fridges.

rudd-burger“Serious comedy” can be very powerful (The Network and Wag the Dog are two excellent examples), but there is an equally important place in the comedic pantheon for films that succeed by not taking themselves too seriously. Movies like The Naked Gun, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, or anything Seth Rogen has ever touched revel in their own absurdities, relying on the talents of their actors, the deftness of their directors, and the awareness of their audience to successfully convey their absurdist messages. Wet Hot American Summer takes this form of comedy one hilarious step further, employing ridiculous plot twists laughterand absurd tonal shifts in an effective effort to constantly deliver its viewers radically unexpected moments, all of which is quite obviously done at the writers’ amusement (but never at the audience’s expense). Every detail is treated with a loving quirkiness, as characters might turn on each other suddenly and for no reason or abruptly support one another with seemingly no explanation or motivation. Subplots include everything from falling in love with underage campers to trying to prevent the end of the world. Even Time Itself, like a camp curfew, is treated with flagrant disregard.

Also, everyone like really, really wants to get laid.

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Unless you are suffering from some kind of medical condition that turns laughter into merciless pain, go roast some marshmallows, place your tongue firmly in cheek, and watch this film.

The Verdict: UNDERHYPED.  If the talented writing, star cast, surrealist humor and fresh perspective aren’t enough to get you to watch this film, then maybe hearing a can of mixed vegetables voiced by Archer’s H. Jon Benjamin say “I can suck my own dick” will be enough to get you to watch this under appreciated gem.

Rotten Tomatoes: 31%

Box Office: -$1.5 million