Viking Night: Wet, Hot American Summer
By Bruce Hall
June 30, 2015

When was this made? 1987?

This is what happens when you buy a Jaguar for $5,000.

Let me elaborate. I once had the opportunity to buy a Jaguar XJS for exactly that much money. It was a brilliant shade of emerald green, which I hated. It was a convertible, which I hated. It wasn’t more than six or seven years old, but someone had driven the hell out of it. Nobody knew how many miles were on it because the numbers were worn off the odometer. Yes. It was that kind of car. And you know I wanted it anyway, because it was a fucking Jaguar! For $5,000! Where else was I going to find this kind of a deal (except for every single issue of Auto Trader)? It was so very clean and shiny, and even had a decent sound system. What kind of a glue sniffing moron would sell something like this for nothing?

I was young enough to stop and look. Maybe I even filled out a little paperwork. But I was old enough to know that the real question was “what kind of glue sniffing moron would BUY something like this for nothing?” Sometimes life surprises you, but usually when something looks that much too-good-to-be-true, it absolutely, totally is. So go ahead and buy that car. Buy it and drive off the lot. You know what you did. And when the time comes to pay for it, you will silently sit there in the middle of the intersection, head hung in shame. Because you knew this was coming, and you knew it all along.

You knew that the last time you saw Wet Hot American Summer you didn’t like it, but then you looked at the cast, and saw who was in it. You failed to follow your instincts, and you were disappointed. Damn near the whole cast is in some way successful now. How could it not be good? Sterling Archer plays a can of vegetables! How is that not funny? How is an R-rated comedy with one of the most talented casts ever assembled for a two million dollar film not one of the most celebrated films of all time? What kind of multi-agency government conspiracy has been suppressing this movie for so long?

Well, do you remember that car I was talking about? It’s like that.

I guess I forgot that ‘80s summer camp movies were a thing, but according to Google, I am indeed forgetting that. Fair enough. Wet Hot American Summer is a parody of this (summer camp movies, not my early onset Alzheimer's). Of course there are three kinds of summer camp movies - the ones where a bunch of kids are trying to get laid, the ones where a guy in a hockey mask is splitting those kids open like watermelons, and the ones where both of those things are happening.

This movie lands in category one. Janeane Garofalo plays Beth, the cloistered, busybody director of the fictional Camp Firewood. The theme of the story is "finding that one special someone and boning them before the summer ends, cementing your failure as a person forever". Apparently it the last day of camp, it's 1981, and nobody's had any sex all summer. There are basically 24 hours left to hook up with someone, and ride them like a cowboy. And then, everyone falls happily ever after in love. And someone learns a valuable lesson about believing in yourself, or tolerance or something.

Like I said, this was a genre. And Wet Hot American Summer is a goof on that. Remember this.
As I said, everyone is trying to get laid. Beth is hot for Henry (David Hyde Pierce), a nerdy college professor with a serious dark streak. Coop (Michael Showalter) wants to get busy with Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who is already dating the incredibly dickish Andy (Paul Rudd), who also has eyes for Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). Victor (Ken Marino) has it bad for Abby (Marisa Ryan), who I'm pretty sure would have sex with literally anything. McKinley (Michael Ian Black) seems oddly asexual. And of course, Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) are putting on a talent show. But they're not sleeping together.

Or, are they? Does it matter? Do you care? Should you? Of course not, because this is a parody of a teen sex romp. But that's a little like making fun of that tangled mess of polymers Donald Trump calls hair. It’s a valid target, but the joke tells itself. There’s no reason to embellish, and that’s kind of the problem with Wet Hot American Summer. Teen sex romps are already stupid. But Showalter and director David Wain weren’t content to let you in on the joke, they needed to be sure you realize you know what you’re seeing. Most of the gags are obvious, but they go on for too long, and stop just short of someone turning to the camera and saying “Get it? Do you see what we did there? We’re making fun of the Bad News Bears”

Yes. Yes, we get it. You just oversold it, so now it’s not funny anymore.

That’s the problem. Wet Hot American Summer is actually kind of an ambitious project. It’s a series of oddball sketches stretched over the meager bones of a story. But almost every scene is a tonally different kind of comedy, so while the movie does have some laughs, it never really gets its footing. You can see what you’re supposed to laugh at; it’s just not usually worth the energy. The story is at its best when it’s not trying so hard. Among these moments are a throwaway line by Henry regarding his genitals, and a particularly well thought out goof on the sickeningly whimsical “Let’s all meet at this very spot in 10 years” thing. Sadly, these moments aren’t enough to carry the whole film.

But there are bright spots. Paul Rudd absolutely kills as Andy. He’s not a person so much as he is the walking, talking single minded embodiment of an engorged penis. If he can’t handle the job with his dong, his tongue or his middle finger, it’s not worth doing. There’s a scene where Beth asks Andy to do something incredibly simple and Andy’s response isn’t just childish - it’s one of the single greatest things ever captured on film in the history of cinema. Christopher Meloni is almost unrecognizable as Gene, the camp cook. He’s a Vietnam veteran who has some...emotional issues...and as I mentioned in another article recently it’s something you shouldn’t laugh at…

But oh my God, is he hilarious. It’s just not enough. Wet Hot American Summer could have been a classic for the ages. Instead, it feels like what you do when someone finally lets you make a movie, and you try as hard as you can to cram every stupid idea you’ve ever had into one story all at once and film it as quickly and cheaply as you can. It’s an earnest, occasionally fun, less occasionally funny attempt at satire that shoots past the target and lands like an undercooked blob of oatmeal. The good thing is that you get the chance to see a lot of really talented people shine - as best they can - in some uniformly hysterical roles that are hamstrung by the tone deaf movie around them. It’s worth watching, but not so much worth remembering. If the upcoming TV series is good, it won’t be because of the movie. It will be because everyone involved has learned something in the years since then.