Wet Hot American Summer
review by Elias Savada, 31 August 2001

My daughter, now a freshman at Syracuse University, wanted so much for me to write a good review of Wet Hot American Summer, which she saw back in the dry, cold American winter of Sundance. But this dreadful excuse of a comedy makes real-life bug juice and mystery meat look a whole lot more appetizing than sitting through this silly excursion to Gilligan's Summer Camp. So, daughter dearest, I'll let my readers judge whether the review is good. The film? Well, I think you've already got a tinkering for how I feel about that.

Residents of Gotham City have suffered through Summer for over a month (where it opened on parents' weekend); now distributor USA Films flushes out the rest of the country with this lame elegy to the sexual frustrations and over-indulgences of hippie camp counselors of the early 1980s. Set twenty years ago, give or take a week or two, Summer captures the wild and wacky atmosphere of the final (full) day at Camp Firewood, in Maine [actually Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania], a non-religious but generally Jewish (yes, there's a big nose reference) gathering of spoiled and heart-broken children and their "adult" supervisors, and suggests that this is the norm for summer-camp experiences. Now, I was five years old when I first hit the sleep-away camp circuit, first in upstate New York, then three years in South Bend, Indiana (Culver Military Academy, with not-very-fond memories of formation marching, in light blue uniforms, to watch John Wayne movies every Tuesday night), before settling in at a series of locations run by Camp Ramah. One of their campsites, condemned some thirty-plus years ago, was in Moodus, Connecticut, where we often dined on green eggs and suffered the consequences…at least until visiting day. Daily stopovers at the infirmary were de rigueur, where patients occasionally arrived with upset stomachs and left with bee stings. Sure we (the campers) had our share of sexual awakenings, but Wet Hot American Summer purports that nearly every non-camper and some of their young subjects are scheduled to die of sexual starvation within twenty-four hours unless so satisfied. And there's a couple of compulsory yet lifeless food jokes in this corpse of a movie, mostly at the expense of Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Oz), as a battle-scarred Vietnam veteran who talks with cans of Pozinsky's Mixed "Quality" Vegetables and cooks up coital relief with the local refrigerator.

The cast, featuring SNL alumni Janeanne Garofolo and Molly Shannon and fellow NBC veteran David Hyde Pierce (Frasier), are all an accomplished bunch. All have made better films; they probably haven't suffered in worse. Garofolo, a darkly comic sparkplug, reigns over the craw as Beth, the carefree camp director. Her role here is best defined as thin. In fact, every character is a thespian toothpick, the actors embodying them all searching for morsels of inspiration, sadly lacking in the script by MTV and VH1 veterans Michael Showalter and David Wain, longtime members of the MTV sketch-comedy troupe The State. Wain, directing his first feature, lacks the visual discipline and control to make this film register more than a Labor Day blimp on the cinematic scoreboard. The film's title contrasts sharply with its damp, muddy look, and its inadvertently switching afternoon- and evening-lit scenes as if continuity didn't matter. All the actors meander about direction-less, much as the dorky campers and spaced-out counselors all search for organized activities. Someone must have stuffed Wain's megaphone with wet toilet paper as everyone suffers in this tiring day-in-the-life-of story.

One of the most annoying aspects of the screenplay is that the writers have dumped an entire summer's worth of "educational" exercises into one final day. What the heck has the staff been doing for eight weeks (hibernating?) that it jumbles together capture-the-flag, the talent show, a two-hour ride for an all-day, all night rafting trip, and the desperate "I've got to have sex before camp ends" relationships into the final hours of the summer experience?

Then there's the careless attitude surrounding most of the employees, who favor French kissing at the expense of a drowning child, or tossing campers out on the roadside from a moving van. One agonizing, laughless segment has a good many counselors and the camp director taking an early morning hour off to head into town, where they smoke dope, buy cocaine, drink beer, and snatch purses, only to return to camp "refreshed" and none the worse for their actions.

Pierce, plays Garofalo's newly-minted love interest, that of Henry Neuman, a local associate astrophysics professor who befriends a handful of scientific-minded campers. He wins her over by constructing with his Einsteinian geeks a rudimentary lathe, er, defensive contraption (fashioned from a can of Spam and other household items) that saves the camp from a falling piece of Sky Lab. Meanwhile, divorcée Molly Shannon sobs through a series of group therapy sessions with her arts-and-crafts group, which includes a child psychologist who is more mature than his age suggests.

I strongly suggest forgoing Wet Hot American Summer. That scent of sex in the air? It's one limp, cold American odor.

Directed by:
David Wain

Janeanne Garofalo
David Hyde Pierce
Molly Shannon
Paul Rudd
Christopher Meloni
Michael Showalter
Marguerite Moreau

Written by:
Michael Showalter 
David Wain

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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