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Wayback Wednesday: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

I feel like I would not have fared well at summer camp. Like, at all.

This might come as a shock, but believe it or not, I have never been to summer camp. Well, sleepaway camp for the whole summer, that is. One summer when I was little, I went to a day camp for a week where we spent a surprising amount of time indoors playing with Lincoln Logs. I think we might have gone outside once a day to play with a parachute? Yeah, not quite the wild summer experience you see in movies like, Meatballs (1979), The Parent Trap (1998), or Wet Hot American Summer (2001). To try and get a feel of those wild experiences and to kick off the first Wayback of the summer, I decided to watch Wet Hot American Summer for the first time. You guys, if even half of what happens in this movie happens at a real summer camp…damn, I missed out.

Screen Shot 2020-06-01 at 12.15.30 AM
Credit: / USA Films

Set in 1981, Wet Hot American Summer follows the campers and counsellors of Camp Firewood on their last day at camp. Hoping for one last shot at romance before summer ends, the counsellors race to make the last day of summer memorable in whatever way they can.

Sidenote, did anyone actually enjoy summer camp? It seems like having fun at camp is something that only happens in the movies so please, let me know what it was like! Speaking of fun, let’s talk about Wet Hot American Summer. A brilliant parody of the summer teen comedies that dominated the ’80s, Wet Hot American Summer totally captures all the clichés and silliness of those movies and lampoons them perfectly. Tone-wise, it’s actually in the same vein as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). It’s a smart parody that’s incredibly tongue in cheek. By the way, check out my review, here. There are dozens of silly homages and little winks to the audience that if you actually went to camp (or have literally seen any movie about it) will leave you in stitches. When they decide to just cancel the big softball game against “those anonymously evil campers from Camp Tigerclaw” because the whole thing feels “trite?” I died. A hilarious send-up of every camp movie ever!

It starts out subtly poking fun at the genre, almost like a mockumentary. Then as the movie builds momentum, it goes FULL balls to the wall ridiculousness. It’s never explicitly stupid though, which is a fine line to walk when it comes to parody. It’s not mindless and tedious like Disaster Movie (2008), y’know? Wet Hot American Summer balances broad, out there physical comedy with clever jokes and memorable characterizations, extremely well. The movie can be chaotic at times, but it’s always at its best when it manages to rein in its wildness, refocus, and double down on making fun of summer camp movies. I have a feeling that Wet Hot American Summer is one of those movies you need to watch a second time. I didn’t LOVE it after watching it for the first time but I suspect that now that I fully understand its tone and humour, I’m really going to enjoy it more the second time I see it. I completely understand why this is a cult classic.

Wet Hot American Summer has no clear storyline. While that would be a deterrent in most movies, it somehow only adds to the overall charm and wackiness of this one. There are several wildly hilarious storylines that make the whole movie feel like five Saturday Night Live (1975 – present) sketches strung together, but it’s that kind of low-stakes incoherence that Wet Hot American Summer is going for. Which, is appropriate considering how many SNL alums are in the cast. Oh, trust me, we’ll talk about this stellar cast in just a minute. Oh! Speaking of SNL, I fucking lost my mind at how hilarious Molly Shannon’s storyline was. Shannon plays Gail, a recent divorcee who hijacks the arts and crafts lesson to cry about her ex-husband. I could watch small children console Shannon and basically give her a free therapy lesson and talk like her girlfriends at brunch all day. Also, totally something I would have done as a self-proclaimed “indoor kid.”

Did you know it only cost $1.8 million to make Wet Hot American Summer? And that it only made $295,000 at the box office? When you watch the movie, the low budget is clear as day. It’s badly shot, a little chaotic and all over the place, uses cheesy sound effects, cuts away quickly to disguise things they fiscally couldn’t pull off…it feels kind of like a direct-to-DVD movie. Like, I can’t quite believe it played in theatres. I think that if it were made today and filmed as a straight up mockumentary, it would be one of the most successful comedies of the summer. Especially if they could get the same cast.

Hands down the most impressive thing about Wet Hot American Summer are all the amazingly talented actors in its cast. Many of whom, were relatively unknown at the time. Seriously, considering how famous they are now, it’s shocking. You guys, this was the very first movie role of multiple Oscar nominee, Bradley Cooper! THE SECOND he and Amy Poehler showed up as the preppy drama geeks who take the camp musical far too seriously, I knew they were going to be my favourite. And they were. Bitchy freakouts, show tunes, and a tender gay romance? I could have watched an entire movie just about the preparation of this failed talent show.

The cast also includes Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, and Janeane Garofolo to name a few, all of whom completely understand the type of movie they’re in. Every actor captures the cluelessness, the irresponsibility, the vapidity and the lovable dim-wittedness of their characters flawlessly. I love that everyone is on the same page and totally committed to these archetypal characters who never ever act as real people would. Everyone is so great in their roles, but Christopher Meloni as Gene, the camp chef, steals the show. He’s just so bizarre, kooky, and unhinged in a way that will never be unentertaining.

As I was watching Wet Hot American Summer, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t going to be my kind of movie. Even now, I wouldn’t call it one of my all-time favourites. But after looking over this review, I’m realizing just how great and smart this movie actually is. I’m also seeing how deserving it is of a second chance. Honestly, I’m looking forward to watching it again and picking up on everything I missed the first time around. Also, is it too late for me to sign up for some sort of summer camp for adults? I feel like I have a lifetime of experiences to catch up on. Summer 2021, Luke’s going to camp.

Have you seen Wet Hot American Summer? Have you been to summer camp?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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