Wet Hot American Summer spoofs summer camp flicks
Wet Hot American Summer is a movie that is aware of how low it stoops for laughs as it continues the Gen-X fascination with mining the trash output of its so-called culture. A spoof of one of American cinema's most brain-damaged genres (a mere notch above stewardess porn in the trash canon), Wet Hot American Summer references the summer camp and teen sex comedies of the late '70s/early '80s like Meatballs (1979), Little Darlings (1980) and Porky's (1981).
From its stupidly lewd title to its fixation on the kind of gross-out sexual humor that makes preteen boys' hearts go pitter-patter, Wet Hot American Summer is a parody film on a very intimate basis with its inspiration. Made by two obvious smartass veterans of the MTV sketch comedy show "The State," co-writer Michael Showalter and co-writer/director David Wain, the film takes every conceit of such summer camp fodder and magnifies it into the realm of the ludicrous. So, while films like Little Darlings unfold in the adolescent-nirvana of perpetual summer, Wet Hot American Summer collapses all of its action — enough to fill two summers — into a single day, the last day of summer camp, August 1981.
Within that shrimpy time-frame, campers and counselors strive to lose their virginity, play a triumphant softball game, stage a talent show version of Godspell, stop a piece of SKYLAB shrapnel headed right for the camp, go on a rafting adventure, help the Vietnam Vet camp cook overcome his post-traumatic psychosis and otherwise fill, with merriment and hijinks galore, the yawning hours until mom and dad arrive in their Volvos to cart the kiddies away.
The action in Wet Hot American Summer centers most often not on the campers but on their horny counselors. These negligent faux-adults tend to miss camper drownings while they make-out during lifeguard duty or suffer — like recent divorcee Gail (Molly Shannon) — emotional break-downs in arts and crafts class, leaving their young charges to attend to their "needs."
Shannon and Janeane Garofalo are two of the counselors doing a spin on their usual shtick, the former neurotic and self-effacing, the latter neurotic and scrappy. Garofalo is camp director Beth, a spazzy frump in a hippie Indian shirt who's in love with an equally klutzy astro-psychics instructor named Henry (David Hyde Pierce) whose yard abuts Camp Firewood. In a bid to win Beth's attention, Henry takes the camp misfits — budding progressive rockers and Dungeons & Dragons dweebs — under his wing, enlisting their help in averting that space-waste SKYLAB disaster.
Dressed in velour Hang-Ten shorts, muscle shirts, white guy 'fros, feathered hair and sweat bands, the stars of Wet Hot American Summer, including nebbish co-writer Michael Showalter, look as authentically homely and doltish as real '70s teens. If a large part of a film like Wet Hot American Summer's success for Gen-Xers lies in its re-creation of the look and feel of its time period, then it is a triumph. As in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, directors approach such nostalgia-pop efforts with the meticulousness of Stanley Kubrick filming 18th-century England, with every Rubik's Cube and pair of "Mork and Mindy" rainbow suspenders in place. Much of Wet Hot American Summer's brand of comedy is thus reducible to sight gags, and its verite treatment of the tacky excesses of the '70s.
The summer camp losing-your-virginity genre is admittedly easy pickings, but then again, so were the flustered disaster films that made Airplane! — whose preposterously silly and crude vignettes bear a strong resemblance to Wet Hot American Summer — the comedic high water mark of 1980.
Recalling the silliest moments of Airplane! and "SCTV," Wet Hot American Summer is so bad, so unapologetic in its groveling in the slime of its own genesis, that it often dabbles in the sublime, as in the vignette of the counselors running amok in "town," a flight from responsibility that quickly moves from beer drinking to heroin addiction. But like many a "Saturday Night Live" gag, Wet Hot American Summer also can overstay its welcome and drag interminably on, its joke about the longest day in the world backfiring as it moves sputteringly toward a resolution.
Peachtree Film Society presents Wet Hot American Summer Sunday, Oct. 21, at 6 p.m. at General Cinemas Parkway Pointe Theater. $7.50. www.peachtreefilm.org or 770-729-8487.??