Rockwood Cinema Review: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Wet Hot American Summer poster with nods to Meatballs and National Lampoons.

It’s America Day so what better film to review, in keeping with our outdoor-themed movies, than Wet Hot American Summer (2001). With its star (& strip) studded cast, divisive humour and its relative obscurity it has become somewhat of a cult classics, amongst those that enjoy the most irreverent of humour. But does it even deserve the title of “cult classic”?

Much in the tradition of Meatballs (1979), the summer camp movie was a huge sub-genre of the film world in the 70s and 80s. In the same way the high school film has its place in cinema, the summer camp movie deals with many of the same prevailing issues: kids dealing with adversity, hormones, rejection, acceptance and camaraderie here set across the backdrop of mess-halls, playing fields, lakes and woods. For the counselors, it’s much of the same thing with more of a focus on the sex and partying. These movies are plentiful, so let’s just say there is more than enough cliche material to mock and Wet Hot American Summer does it with varying results from to the hilarious to the not so hilarious to the “camp”. Wet Hot American Summer parodies all the elements of these camp movies: the camp radio narrator, softcore voyeaurism of movies like Porky’s (1981) (albeit critically), awkward counselor hookups and fallouts.

Set in the wilderness of Maine at Camp Firewood (terrible) in 1981, it stars a funny diverse cast of actors, directors and writers such as: Amy Poehler (Parks And Recreation), Janeane Garofalo (Reality Bites), David Hyde Pierce (Fraser), Paul Rudd (Anchorman), Elizabeth Banks (30 Rock), Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers), Christopher Meloni (Law and Order), A.D. Miles (that cameo guy from Tim & Eric), Ken Marino (Wanderlust), Joe Lo Truglio (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and the voice of H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers) as a talking can of mixed vegetable soup. Many of these actors appearing here before they struck fame. So the cast can do funny but is Wet Hot American Summer that funny?

For a Wet Hot American Summer, the humour is particularly dry at times. You will wonder: is this even funny, was that joke purposefully terrible? For instance, the scene where a dismayed Coop slips on a banana and gets a bucket on his head (really?), or when Beth and Neil go on a smashing spree, or when Michael Showalter, inexplicably plays an old stand-up lounge comedian at the end of the year performance. But also there are some genuine laugh out loud moments: Christopher Meloni as the demented cook Gene, Katie and Coop awkward exchange of his flannel shirt and sweater, the well placed foul language and hazing (not an advocate) exchanged between counselor and the kids, and the mere fact that all these “kids” are way too old to be counselors makes the situation that much funnier.

The movie itself, is much like the scene where Coop explains to the kids in his baseball team how they fought adversity and came together and are going to win the baseball game with a trick move at the end. One of the kids responds that it’s “well worn territory” and another that “the whole thing feels rather trite. I say we forget it.” This is the problem with Wet Hot American Summer. Even for the most staunch fan of stupid stuff, at times, it’s hard to suspend disbelief in how bad some of it is.

Paul Rudd making a mess in the mess hall.

Rock references abound in this film: from it’s intro with “Jane” by Jefferson Starship, which would eventually become the hallmark song to cap off the rest of the series to follow; kids yelling “Jukebox Hero” to wake up there counselor; also it includes not one but TWO songs by Canada’s (ahem) Loverboy with “Turn Me Loose” (featured on Cottage Country Vol. 3) and “When It’s Over”.

However, it’s hard to be too critical about it. It’s a mostly enjoyable comedy, its humour may not be for everybody. It seems like it loses a bit of momentum near the end of the movie. Ultimately, movies that are non-stop laughter don’t exist. Wet Hot American Summer almost resigns itself to the fact that the humour has to get terrible before it gets funny again.

Rating: / 5
Length: 1h 37m
Rated: R
Best time to watch: Late night ranuchy comedy or an afternoon amusment

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