So Wet Hot American Summer is one of them there cult films all the cool people love these days but didn’t bother seeing when it came out. Probably because everyone hated it then. But tastes change and films can, sometimes, resonate more years later. I never really knew much about Wet Hot American Summer other than it having a cast full of now well known faces and for being the film with Bradley Cooper’s hot gay sex scene. You can go search Youtube for that if you like. Other than those points there’s little to the film I knew of, so I figured it was about time I checked it out. Also, there’s a series based on it on Netflix and I need something to watch when I’m done with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Anyway, on with the review.
Wet Hot American Summer is a riff on 80s summer camp and high school comedies focused on the debauchery filled goings on of a group of teenagers played by actors far too old to be playing teenagers. The various leads all have their own story threads which may or may not tie into others as they go about spending their last day at summer camp together. Raunchy goings on are had. Nerds do nerd things. Dudes try desperately to get laid. It’s pretty much every trope from an 80s teen comedy you could imagine rolled into one nice 95 minute long package.
Whilst the film does riff on 80’s comedy it isn’t really a spoof off them. Its sense of humour is more modernised and little attempt is made, beyond the fashions, to give the film a particularly 80s feel in that “remember how kitsch the 80’s was?” kind of way. This is more of an honest representation of the period rather than relying on any particular retro stylised aesthetic choices. There’s actually a few elements of the film that mess up the 1981 setting, such as a character mentioning The Style Council, a band that didn’t form until a few years later. In fact, the film is full of mistakes. In one scene Janeane Garofalo, as camp director Beth, is stood on a visible actor’s mark, in this case a bright yellow x. Often rain can be seen pouring down through the window of an interior shot whilst it’s meant to be sunny outside. A lot of films carry mistakes with them but rarely are they this visible. The sign of a rushed production, which Wet Hot American Summer really was. Especially as it kept raining on nearly every day of the shoot.
One criticism I made of a similarly originally overlooked but now cult film, Empire Records, was that it often felt lacking in direction. The same can be said of this film. It was kind of a trend at the time as everyone was trying to get on that slacker comedy style. The trick to those films though was that whilst appearing to lack direction they were actually building character for the film’s greater plot to gradually weave into. Empire Records managed that brilliantly but Wet Hot American Summer really doesn’t. The film is knowingly crafted to rely on non-sequiturs, juxtaposition based and purposefully idiosyncratic humour to provide the laughs. As a result characters will often act inconsistently and the finale’s story threads are forced together in a very haphazard way.
Here’s the thing though. It’s very much on purpose. David Wain’s direction is very much aware of how the film’s it’s riffing on progressed and does what he can to mess with that format. He’ll have a scene where baseball coach is giving his big pre-game speech to get the kids all amped up only to have the kids say that it all seems rather trite, to which the coach agrees. The joke is then taken further by having the rival team turn up and for the team coaches to discuss, inaudibly, the situation and agree that the game is pointless. And now there is no big baseball scene. In another scene a few of the main cast head into town and end up robbing old folk, getting drunk and passing out in a crack den over the course of one hour. They return to work with no sign of their recent binge. Occasionally these gags work real well, but often they also end up feeling like padding for a film that’s already failing to invest in character development.
The constant subversion of expectations eventually becomes the expectation leading you to, as the Animaniacs would implore, expect the unexpected. For me this did lead to me eventually rolling with the curve-balls the film threw my way and even getting quite a chuckle at how the ending of the film goes can’t stop messing with you. What the film essentially does is encapsulate the fickle and indecisive nature of being a teen in every decision and action made in the film. In that sense, it’s kind of brilliant. Doesn’t make for an engaging story, or even a story in general. But as a sequence of events set over a period of time in a group of young people’s lives, it works quite well. I do wander if the film could have pulled this off if the cast wasn’t so full of talent. Not many films can boast to having a cast featuring Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni (who is brilliant here), Elizabeth Banks and Molly Shannon. It really is a who’s who of the last decade’s comedy. Even H. Jon Benjamin’s Coach McGuirk/Dr Katz era voice is present… as a can of mixed vegetables.
Overall Wet Hot American Summer is pretty much the definition of destined to be cult. It’s full of incredible flaws that can be overlooked for the all the elements it gets right. The laughs don’t always hit but when they do they’re strong. The film feels like one massive themed sketch show where everyone is trying to see what they can make work within the confines of the setting. Whilst I don’t think it’s some kind of near masterpiece, as I do Empire Records, it is certainly full of the charms needed to find its way onto many people’s favourites list. I know Danny Sexbang of Ninja Sex Party lists it as his favourite film of all time and he seems to have a decent sense of humour. I’m probably too miserable to enjoy it as much as he does. You’d probably love it. I assume. Give it a try is what I’m saying.