The Wet Hot American Summer phenomenon (if it can really be described as a phenomenon) is something that passed me by until the recent fuss over Netflix’s 2015 prequel series, which has been made by the streaming service and which features many returning members of the original cast (as well as a couple of high profile additions). The 15-year-old feature film that started it all, though nearly battered to death by critical brickbats in 2001, became a cult hit when its goofy humour and gentle spoofing of 1980s teen sex comedies found a wider audience through cable showings in the US. It appeared on Netflix in the UK in advance of the new series and received plenty of attention online, so I thought it was time I caught up to see what I’d been missing.
Not all that much, as it turns out. I watched a video library’s worth of films like Meatballs, Porky’s, Spring Break and Screwballs when my dad first bought a VHS player, my younger self usually waiting patiently to see an on-screen nipple or ten, and so I did enjoy the way that Wet Hot American Summer affectionately lampoons these cultural touchstones through its summer camp setting, its plethora of horny teens / horny camp counselors and its plot (it’s the last day of camp, a talent show has been organised, and everyone wants to get laid). It’s also entertaining to see so many actors who were either already well-known at the time of release (the ever-watchable Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon), particularly to viewers of US TV comedy, or who have since found substantial fame (for example Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler and Christopher Meloni). The comic talent that was at director David Wain’s disposal is undeniable, but I was left with the feeling that the script, co-written by Wain and star Michael Showalter, doesn’t really get the best out of them. The jokes in Wet Hot American Summer miss the target more often than not, at least for me anyway, even if the film does have its moments.
So yes, there were some things I liked. I’d prefer not to round on any film that includes a spoof on drug addiction as deliriously wacky as the one incorporated here, which is so silly and unnecessary it makes you want to stand up and cheer. The irreverent scenes featuring Meloni’s Vietnam vet-turned-chef Gene and a talking can of vegetables are similarly worthy of mention, and indicative of the offbeat approach of the writers, while Wain and Showalter also manage to mercilessly rip apart every sports film you’ve ever seen in the space of a deliciously-arch two minutes. And Paul Rudd is in particularly fine form as a flouncing, cheating counselor who is still overly-reliant on exaggerated teenage attitood for personality (he gets the film’s best line, delivered to Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay: ‘You taste like a burger; I don’t like you anymore’). However the laughs induced are sporadic and much of the film flatlines: I don’t know whether it’s because I have no experience of American summer camps or whether it’s because my own sense of humour is out of step with those of Wet Hot American Summer‘s legion of fans, but I was expecting to chuckle a little bit more than three or four times, and its straight-to-video status doesn’t surprise me (while wholly in-keeping with the fate of many of the film’s targets). Still, it’s hard not to be charmed by the enthusiasm of the actors, who understandably look like they’re having a whale of a time; I’ll probably give the TV series a whirl as a result, as their enthusiasm for the material is infectious.
Directed by: David Wain.
Written by: David Wain, Michael Showalter.
Starring: Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni, Marguerite Moreau, AD Miles, Marisa Ryan.
Cinematography: Ben Weinstein.
Editing: Meg Reticker.
Music: Theodore Shapiro, Craig Wedren.
Running Time: 92 minutes.